Papa Haydn

Papa Haydn’s dead and gone
  but his memory lingers on.
When his mood was one of bliss
  he wrote jolly tunes like this.

“Papa Haydn” was the affectionate name bestowed on Franz Joseph Haydn, the father of the symphony and the string quartet, by musicians who worked for him. The nickname caught on, and people far and wide adopted the term for the older composer, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). But who was Haydn, other than the composer of over 100 symphonies and over 80 string quartets?

Franz Joseph Haydn, born on 31st March 1732, grew up in the Austrian village Rohrau, where his father, Mathias Haydn (1699-1763) served as Marktrichter or mayor. In his younger years, Mathias learnt to play the harp by ear, although he never learnt how to read music. Haydn’s mother Maria could not read music either, yet Haydn’s childhood was very musical, often singing with his neighbours. 

Haydn’s younger brother Michael (1737-1806) was also musically gifted, and their parents worried the village of Rohrau was not the right place for them to enhance their skills. When Haydn was only six years old, his parents sent him to a relative and schoolmaster called Johann Matthias Frankh in Hainburg. As Frankh’s apprentice, Haydn trained as a musician and never returned to his parents. Haydn learnt to play the harpsichord and violin under Frankh’s tuition but suffered neglect in other ways, such as nourishment and clothing. Fortunately, his passion for singing was his saving grace.

The people of Hainburg heard Haydn singing the treble parts in the church choir and brought him to the attention of the composer Georg von Reutter (1708-72). Reutter was the director of music at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and was on the lookout for fresh talent. After several months of training, Haydn moved to the Kapellhaus in Vienna with Reutter where he worked as a chorister for nine years. His brother Michael joined him there in 1745.

Joseph, Michael and the other choirboys received an academic education as well as voice, violin, and keyboard lessons. The tuition lacked musical theory and composition, but Haydn picked up some of this knowledge through practice and performance. St. Stephen’s Cathedral was a leading European music centre and attracted large aristocratic audiences for whom Haydn and the other boys performed.

As Haydn got older, his voice changed, making him unsuitable for Reutter’s choir. He also had a reputation as a practical joker and, after going one joke too far, was caned and dismissed from the school in 1745. With the help of a friend, who provided Haydn with accommodation, Haydn started working as a freelance musician. Jobs included working as a music teacher and singing on the streets until 1752 when he found a position as valet-accompanist to the Italian composer Nicola Porpora (1686-1768). With Porpora’s help, Haydn learnt “the true fundamentals of composition”.

Working with Porpora, Haydn realised his education lacked music theory and composition. To rectify this, Haydn worked his way through books by Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) and studied the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-88). As his skills improved, so did his public reputation, which earned him a commission to write his first opera Der krumme Teufel (The Limping Devil). Whilst it premiered successfully in 1753 critics soon closed it down because of the uncensored “offensive remarks” in the libretto, written by Johann Joseph Felix Kurtz. 

Between 1754 and 56, Haydn returned to freelance work, including for the court in Vienna. He obtained aristocratic patronage, eventually being employed as a Kapellmeister or music director by Count Karl Joseph Morzin. Haydn’s roles included leading the count’s orchestra, for which he composed his first symphonies. In 1760, Haydn had enough money to marry Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1729–1800), the daughter of an organist. Unfortunately, the marriage was an unhappy one.

Count Morzin suffered financial difficulties and had to let Haydn go in 1761. Fortunately, Haydn immediately received a job offer from Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy (1711-62). The Prince employed Haydn as the vice-Kapellmeister of the Esterházy family, although later promoted him to Kapellmeister in 1766. For this position, the family required Haydn to wear livery and accompany them wherever they went, often to cities in Hungary.

As Kapellmeister, Haydn’s tasks included running the orchestra, composing music, performing for patrons and arranging operas. Until 1779, anything Haydn wrote belonged to the Esterházy family, including approximately 90 symphonies, 13 overtures, two dozen string quartets and around 200 works for the baryton. The baryton, a bowed string instrument, was the preferred choice of Prince Nikolaus I Esterházy (1714-1790) who asked Haydn to write compositions for him until 1775 when he switched the baryton for producing operas, many of which were also composed by Haydn.

In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract, which allowed him to publish his works and write for other people. Whilst this allowed him to contact and meet with new people, Haydn felt isolated and lonely in the out-of-the-way home of the Esterházy family. He longed to return to Vienna to visit Mozart, who he had the chance to meet in 1784. Haydn was a great admirer of Mozart’s work, and the young composer reciprocated the feeling by dedicating six quartets to Haydn.

After working for the Esterházy family for 30 years, Haydn finally got his wish for freedom after the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790. Although the prince’s son Anton (1738-94) kept Haydn on, it was at a lower salary, since Anton dismissed most of the court musicians to save money. Having little use for the composer, Anton allowed Haydn to come and go as he pleased.

German violinist Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815) invited Haydn to join him on a trip to London, which he readily accepted. Despite never having been to England, Haydn’s works were well-known in the British capital, and Haydn was eager to compose and conduct new symphonies with their large orchestras. After a brief visit to Vienna, where Haydn reunited with Mozart, Salomon and Haydn travelled to Calais, France, via Germany, where he met the young Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Haydn promised that on his return, he would take Beethoven with him to Vienna as his student.

Haydn and Salomon crossed the English Channel on New Year’s Day, 1791 and settled in London. Crowds flocked to see Haydn in concerts where he both performed and conducted. One critic remarked, “Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.” As well as his well-known works, Haydn performed new symphonies, most notably Surprise (No. 94), Military (No. 100), Drumroll (No. 103) and London (No. 104).

During the visit, Haydn spent some leisure time in the Hertfordshire countryside. He also travelled to Oxford where the prestigious University awarded him an honorary doctorate. At the ceremony, the orchestra played Haydn’s Symphony No.12, which they afterwards renamed the Oxford Symphony, despite it being a commission by the French Count d’Ogny in 1789. 

As promised, Haydn took Beethoven to Vienna on his return from London. Beethoven had already received tuition from several musicians, but it was Haydn’s reputation that gave Beethoven a boost in his career.

In 1794, Haydn made a second tour of London. He was a familiar figure in the concert scene and attracted much attention. Before he returned to Vienna in 1795, London held a benefit concert nicknamed “Dr Haydn’s night”, which Haydn regarded as the peak of his career. Haydn’s biographer Georg August von Griesinger (1769-1845) noted that the days Haydn spent in England were “the happiest of his life. He was everywhere appreciated there; it opened a new world to him”.

On his return to Vienna, Haydn learnt of his employer’s death. Anton’s son, Prince Nicholas II Esterházy (1765-1833), was his successor and wished Haydn to return to the establishment as Kapellmeister. Haydn reluctantly agreed to return on a part-time basis, spending half the year with the Esterházy family and the other half in Vienna.

By now, Haydn’s popularity in Vienna was as great as it was in London. He continued to compose for the Esterházy family, but his most prominent achievements of this period were collaborations with the librettist Gottfried Freiherr van Swieten (1733-1803). Together, they produced two oratorios: The Creation (1798), based on the Book of Genesis, and The Seasons. Haydn also took inspiration from his time in London where he had heard the crowds singing God Save the King. For the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Francis II (1768-1835), Haydn composed the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser (God save Francis the Emperor). Germany’s national anthem today continues to use this tune. 

By 1800, Haydn faced the typical health problems that came with old age. He composed his final major work in 1802, a mass called Harmoniemesse for the Esterházy family. After this, it became increasingly difficult for Haydn to write music. Haydn frequently suffered bouts of dizziness and had swollen painful legs. Doctors offered no diagnosis at the time, but the symptoms suggest his body was suffering from high cholesterol and bad diet. Yet, whilst his body became uncooperative, Haydn’s mind remained sharp.

“I must have something to do—usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier. I am really just a living clavier.”

Haydn, 1806

Except for a few futile attempts at composing, Haydn retreated from public life. He remained the Kapellmeister for the Esterházy family, but they employed other musicians to take on many of Haydn’s roles. Nonetheless, Haydn continued to receive public honours, such as concerts in his name, which Haydn attended on an armchair carried by his servants. When he felt strong enough, Haydn played his piano, although limited himself to only his “Emperor’s Hymn” Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser. It was this music that he played on the 26th May 1809 before collapsing. A few days later, Haydn passed away on 31st May at the age of 77.

Haydn’s funeral took place on 15th June in Vienna, a small affair including a performance of Mozart’s requiem. Hundsturm cemetery, where they interred his body, is now known as Haydnpark, although the Esterházy family insisted on moving Haydn’s remains to Eisenstadt in 1820. Yet, when they dug up Haydn’s body, they discovered his skull missing.

The furious Prince Nicholas II deduced the stolen skull was the work of Joseph Carl Rosenbaum and Johann Nepomuk Peter. The two men, who had a strong interest in phrenology, a discredited science, believed they could ascertain Haydn’s genius by measuring the bumps and shape of the skull. Whilst Nicholas was correct in his assumption, the men gave the family a different head, secretly keeping Haydn’s for their studies.

When Rosenbaum died, Haydn’s skull passed from person to person until it became the possession of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of the Friends of Music). Learning of this, the Esterházy family set out to reunite Haydn’s head with his body, although this took many years to arrange. Eventually, in 1954, 145 years after the composer’s death, they finally restored Haydn’s head. Not knowing what to do with the substitute skull, the family left it in the tomb thus Haydn’s final resting place contains two skulls.

Looking at Haydn’s skull did not tell the world anything about the composer, but studying his works, letters and biographies reveal his mental traits. Growing up in poverty, Haydn knew the importance of money, making him an astute business dealer. “As regards money, Haydn…always attempted to maximize his income, whether by negotiating the right to sell his music outside the Esterházy court, driving hard bargains with publishers or selling his works three and four times over.” Yet, Haydn gave much of his money to charity and friends. He even taught Mozart’s sons for free after their father’s death.

Haydn’s original manuscripts are evidence of his devout Catholicism. Each composition began with the phrase in nomine Domini “in the name of the Lord” and ended Laus Deo (praise be to God). When troubled, Haydn regularly turned his thoughts to God, a practice he usually found effective.

Haydn attributed many of his compositions to God’s presence in his life. When he did not know how to tackle a particular piece, his prayers to God helped him to find the answer. Often, this meant a change in style or mood of the music, making his critics exclaim, “This Haydn is like a child, for there is no knowing what he will do next.”

These changes were not drastic enough to make them unrecognisable as Haydn’s work, but music historians have noticed a distinct development in Haydn’s output after the year 1779. Until then, Haydn wrote compositions at the request of others. After renegotiating his contract with the Esterházy family, Haydn could publish works without the approval of his employer. Critics often describe these pieces as “purer” than his earlier works. Haydn’s trips to England also brought changes to Haydn’s music, resulting in what one critic called his “popular style”.

Haydn produced a considerable number of compositions during his career, but only a few remain recognisable to modern generations. His operas have disappeared from opera houses, but this does not mean Haydn had no talent. He was, after all, the “superstar” of his day. Without Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart’s work would be unrecognisable today. Haydn set the foundations for symphonies and string quartets, which composers have followed ever since. Without Haydn, the history of music would be completely different.


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5 thoughts on “Papa Haydn

  1. Another fascinating article. Hazel you are a genius. I knew a little about Haydn and you have significantly added to my knowledge, especially the two skulls, brilliant trivia question.
    Thank you, I’m delighted to be supporting via patreon and hope others will also.
    Thank you for sharing your talents.

  2. I knew very little about Haydn so this was a great read for me with so much information. Will have to search out his music now that you have whetted my appetite. Thank you once again for a very interesting article.

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