Who was Haydn?

Joseph Haydn was one of the most important composers of the Classical era. In fact, Haydn (1732-1809) joins Mozart (1756-1791) and Beethoven (1770-1827) as one of the era's three most significant composers. Some of Haydn's style, particularly in his earliest symphonies and string quartets, can be traced back to the Classical era's predecessor, the Baroque era.

But he also looked forward: a large selection of his more than 100 symphonies bear all the hallmarks of the Sturm und Drang era, while some of the late symphonies and string quartets begin to anticipate Beethoven in their almost Romantic breadth of vision.

Haydn is also noted for his humour - his music contains many jokes. The most famous musical joke comes in Haydn's Symphony No. 94, the 'Surprise'. The second movement is a theme and variations, and the opening theme is played softly - but with a sudden fortissimo chord at the end which never fails to surprise new listeners. The music then returns to its original quiet dynamic as if nothing has happened, and the ensuing variations do not repeat the joke.

We can ask the question 'can wordless music ever be funny' all we like: in Haydn's hands, the answer is often 'yes'.

When was Haydn born?

Franz Joseph Haydn was born on 31 March 1732 (exactly 47 years after another great composer, Bach), in the Austrian village of Rohrau.

Was Haydn's family musical?

Haydn's father, Mathias Haydn, was a wheelwright, while his mother Maria Haydn, née Koller, had previously worked as a cook in the palace of the local aristocrat. So Haydn's musical antecedents are not obvious. However, his father was a keen folk musician who had taught himself to play the harp. In fact, Haydn noted later in life that he had enjoyed a very musical childhood, with frequent singing performances as a family and with neighbours.

Where did Haydn grow up?

The young Haydn remained in the village of Rohrau only until the age of six. This is because his parents, noticing that the boy had a gift for music, accepted a suggestion from a relative, Johann Matthias Frankh. The latter was schoolmaster and choirmaster in the town of Hainburg, and offered to take on young Joseph as an apprentice.

Did Haydn leave home at the age of six?

Haydn moved to Hainburg, where he lived with Frankh. He would never again live with his parents.

The young Haydn had a tough time living in the Frankh household: he later recalled that he was often hungry and his clothes were frequently dirty. Musically, however, it was a very beneficial time. He quickly learned to play the harpsichord and violin, and sang in the church choir.

We think that Haydn may have had a fine singing voice, as in 1739-40 he passed an audition with Georg von Reutter, the director of music in St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, who was in the area looking for new choirboys. Haydn passed his audition and, after some additional training, spent the years 1740-1749 as a chorister at St Stephen's.

Did Haydn sing at Vivaldi's funeral?

It is popularly believed that Haydn sang at the funeral of Antonio Vivaldi in 1741. However, this is unlikely, as there probably wasn't any music performed at the Italian composer's funeral.

What are Haydn's most famous pieces?

Like his immediate successors Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn was strong across a few different musical forms.

Haydn's best known pieces include his 104 symphonies. Many of these have names, such as the 'Clock', 'Drum Roll', 'Miracle', 'Bear' and so forth, referring to musical qualities or references. One of his most famous symphonies is Haydn's symphony number 104, the 'London' symphony, his final completed work in this form. Confusingly, his final 12 symphonies (numbers 93 through 104) are also known as the 'London' Symphonies, as they were composed during Haydn's two seasons in the capital.

Haydn's two Cello Concertos, full of upbeat charm and good humour, are also well loved. We've written about some of the best recordings of Haydn's Cello Concertos.

Haydn is also known as the 'father of the string quartet', because he was such a hugely important figure in the development and popularising of the string quartet form. Haydn wrote 60 string quartets: among the most famous are his six opus 76 string quartets. Perhaps Haydn's most famous string quartet is opus 76 number 3, nicknamed the 'Emperor'.

The second movement of the 'Emperor' will be familiar, as it is the German national anthem. It's a set of variations on 'Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser' ('God save Emperor Francis'), an anthem he wrote for Emperor Francis II, which later became the national anthem of Austria-Hungary. It later became the German national anthem, the Deutschlandlied.

Haydn also wrote some beautiful and much-admired choral and sacred music, including several rousing Masses and an oratorio, The Creation.

We've recommended five essential Haydn works to get you started on your Haydn listening journey.

Who did Haydn marry?

By 1760, at the age of 28, Haydn had earned the position of kapellmeister (orchestra leader) to Count Morzin, where his duties included leading a small orchestra. This job gave Haydn the financial security he needed to marry. His wife was Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1729–1800): Haydn had previously been in love with her younger sister of Therese.

Was Haydn's marriage happy?

No, Haydn and Maria Anna Theresia's marriage was not a happy one. There were no children, and both of them had affairs.

When did Haydn die?

Franz Jospeh Haydn died on 31 May, 1809 in Vienna.

Did Haydn and Mozart meet?

Yes, in fact Haydn and Mozart became friends. The two composers met in around 1784, and may have occasionally played in string quartets together.

Haydn was famously generous in his appreciation of Mozart's music, praising it whenever he had the opportunity. Mozart returned the compliment: he dedicated a set of six string quartets to his friend (they are now known as the 'Haydn' quartets).

What did Haydn say about Mozart's music?

Haydn had this very generous assessment of his friend's musical output: 'If only I could impress Mozart's inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the souls of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.'

Did Haydn and Beethoven meet?

Yes, Beethoven and Haydn did meet. The two composers first encountered each other on Boxing Day, 1790, when Haydn was 58 and Beethoven was just 20. They met in Beethoven's home town of Bonn: Haydn was passing through on his way to London, where he was to perform for the first of the two celebrated seasons that would produce the 12 London symphonies.

When Haydn passed through town again two years later, on his way back from Britain, Beethoven showed him a couple of musical scores: two Cantatas, on the Death of Emperor Joseph II (WoO 87) and the Elevation of Emperor Leopold II (WoO O88).

Haydn was impressed. So much so, in fact, that he told Beethoven he'd be happy to teach him, if the latter could make it to Vienna.

Did Haydn teach Beethoven?

Yes: Beethoven started learning with Haydn not long after arriving in Vienna in November 1792. It wasn't a particularly fruitful teacher/student relationship, however: Haydn was very busy with commissions, and a year later he left for his second London trip.

Later, when Beethoven performed his three Piano Trios, Opus 1, for his teacher, Haydn (who was tired from his return trip from Britain) actually suggested that one of the Trios - number 3 - could do with a little more work.

What did Beethoven say about Haydn?

Beethoven was stung by this criticism. The two didn't come to blows, but after this point Beethoven tended to criticise Haydn's teaching. He once commented, 'I never learned anything from Haydn.' He did, though, dedicate his next work - the three Opus 2 Piano Sonatas - to his erstwhile teacher.

Haydn and humour

A late-night Prom in July 2005: Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s London Baroque Soloists are spinning their way through the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C major. The music arrives at a definitive fanfare in the home key and stops. The promenaders begin to applaud – only to hear Sir John shout ‘It’s not finished!’

Nor is it, for after four silent bars, the movement quietly picks up in the remotest key, wandering through all manner of byways before getting back on what is surely the home straight. But then it all happens again: same stop, same audience reaction, same continuation.

Without letting on, Sir John has gone straight into a repeat of the movement’s second half, as Haydn asks. Accordingly, when the real ending does arrive, the audience is reluctant to applaud lest it be caught out a third time – which, by that very reluctance, it duly has been.

What did Haydn's contemporaries think of his music?

Haydn’s notoriety as a prankster has not always enhanced his reputation. Even during his long and successful lifetime (1732-1809), there were more solemn music-lovers, including Austria’s Emperor Joseph II no less, who regarded such quirks as beneath the dignity of music. In the 19th century, Haydn’s jokes were widely heard as tokens of genial superficiality, and only a fraction of his vast output kept a toehold in the repertoire.

Even today, there are many who would hesitate to place Haydn’s achievement on a par with his admiring friend Mozart or his unruly pupil Beethoven. The Mozart myth of the doomed young genius, or the Beethoven image of the Titan battling against Fate, seem much more romantic than the story of the humbly born choirboy and jobbing musician, who rises through servitude to independence by means of self-education and sheer hard work to become the most highly regarded composer in Europe.

And after all, nothing dates more quickly than humour. Yet here, over two centuries after its composition, was an arrangement of notes which, without the aid of any programme or extra-musical explanation (Sir John Eliot’s mid-performance expostulation aside), left that Proms audience abuzz with bemusement and delight once it realised the subtlety with which its expectations had been subverted.

What sort of humour does Haydn use?

Haydn’s jokes, in fact, are rarely mere buffooneries of the loud-bang-to-wake-up-the-listener kind. They almost always turn upon some shrewd insight into the way musical processes are perceived – as, for instance, in the triple-time finale of his late Piano Sonata in A major, H. XVI:51 (1794), where the phrasing, rhythm and harmony get so rapidly out of sync that between bars 12 and 15 one experiences a sort of musical vertigo.

Nor did he contrive these effects only for fun. Part of the mystery of the slow introduction to the Symphony No. 103 (Drumroll) lies in the fact that the ear is left uncertain at first whether the music is in duple or triple time. And when the sprightly main theme of the finale of the String Quartet in E flat, Op. 33 No. 2 (1781), ultimately fragments and sputters out, we may smile, but the effect is genuinely expressive in its pathos.

For all his transcendent mastery, one will scarcely find this kind of musical wit in Mozart, whose creative temperament was very different from Haydn’s, while Beethoven’s humour sounds galumphing by comparison.

Was Haydn's music typical of the 18th century?

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Haydn’s musical language is the extent to which it was self-created. Of course, its basic elements were the same as those of any other mid-18th-century composer: tonal harmonies and key structures, balanced phrases, token snatches of counterpoint, use of genres such as minuet, aria, sonata, divertimento, and so on.

What was evident quite early on was the idiosyncratic angle from which he approached these conventional elements and the quite exceptional focus and drive with which he pursued his predilections. By his middle years, it had already become commonplace to praise Haydn not only for his inexhaustible inventiveness but, above all, for his originality.

Not that Haydn’s idiosyncratic approach to musical rhetoric was quickly achieved. No doubt his years as a St Stephen’s Cathedral choirboy in Vienna imbued him with the feeling for counterpoint that he was later to put to such vigorous use.

What is the Sturm und Drang style?

Yet it was not until he was almost 40 years old and Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family that his self-taught style burst forth with the force of genius in his so-called Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) symphonies and string quartets. Suddenly his composing seemed fraught with fierce intentness, obscure keys, dark moods, stark textures, abrupt stops and starts.

Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor (Farewell), written to indicate his players’ increasing restlessness at an overlong stay at Prince Esterházy’s summer palace, is the most famous of these for its unexpectedly serene ending in which the players gradually leave the stage. But the implacable onrush of the opening movement, the lonely hush of its Adagio and grim tread of its minuet are quite as striking.

What was Haydn's influence on classical music?

Haydn never lost his sense of the radical, but seems to have concluded thereafter that it was kinder to his listeners to insinuate his bolder strokes under the disguise of a more popular style. So the ground was laid for the unprecedented synthesis of the Paris and London symphonies in the late 1780s and ’90s.

By his early 70s, he had accumulated in his symphonies, quartets, piano trios, piano sonatas, and the late choral works, five such inexhaustible bodies of music that his relative failure as an opera composer hardly seems to matter.

Add to this his far-reaching development of the string quartet as a vehicle for the most concentrated and intimate musical expression, and his originating of such forms as so-called double variations, and he stands among the half-dozen most decisive and inexhaustible figures in the history of Western music.

Where Haydn is concerned, ‘It’s not finished’ indeed.

Bayan Northcott