The Europeans, no 8: Haydn
Music business: Haydn became Europe's most respected composer
The Austrian composer bridged the transition from writing music for patrons to writing for a paying audience
Franz Joseph Haydn was born in 1732 in Rohrau, a village about 40km east of Vienna on the border between the Austrian and Hungarian sectors of the Habsburg empire.
Haydn is unusual among the subjects so far treated in this series in that he came from quite a humble background, his father a wheelwright, his mother a cook. The Haydns were, however, an intensely musical family, and the young Joseph was dispatched aged six to the home of a choirmaster in a nearby small town, where he was given some rudimentary musical education.
From there, two years later, he went to be a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where he learned a little more but was eventually expelled after puberty had rendered his voice less sweet and melodious – the immediate cause being a prank played on a fellow pupil involving cutting off his pigtail.
In his late teens and 20s Haydn sang on the streets, taught music and worked as accompanist to whoever would hire him. He also found time to remedy, through study, the considerable deficiencies of his uneven musical training. He wrote a comic opera, Der Krumme Teufel (The Limping Devil), which was performed in 1753 but banned after two performances for “offensive remarks”. By now he was winning a reputation and some aristocratic clients. He taught singing and keyboard to Countess Thun.
At the age of 25 he obtained his first permanent position, as kapellmeister (musical director) to Count Morzin, putting him in charge of a small orchestra, for which he wrote his first symphonies. He also married, but the union was an unhappy one: his wife, Maria Anna, reputedly had no appreciation of music and used his manuscripts to line cake tins or curl her hair.
The most important development in Haydn’s musical life came in 1761 when he was appointed vice-kapellmeister to the Hungarian magnate Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. He was to stay as live-in music servant to the Esterházy family (Paul Anton and his younger brother and successor, Nikolaus) for 30 years.
Haydn was as fortunate in his patrons as they were in their servant. The Esterházys were not just immensely rich but also cultivated, generous and enormously fond of music. At their palaces at Eisenstadt and Eszterháza, Haydn managed his small orchestra and wrote symphonies, string quartets and even operas.
Initially restricted from selling his work or having it performed elsewhere, he negotiated a new contract in 1779 that gave him a freer hand.
Now published, distributed and performed internationally, he was over the next 10 years to become Europe’s most respected composer, in spite of his confinement to a palace in a remote provincial town.
On the death of Prince Nikolaus, in 1790, Haydn was induced by the impresario Johann Peter Salamon to go to London, write new symphonies and perform them with a large orchestra. In fact he made two enormously successful visits, in 1791-2 and 1794-5.
Always a good businessman, Haydn returned with the huge sums he had made in London and built a fine house at Gumpendorf, just outside (today inside) Vienna, where he spent his final years comfortably and among friends until his death, in 1809.
Haydn’s music is deeply imprinted with the character which was apparently that of its composer: cheerful, even playful, energetic, graceful, balanced and life-affirming. That music is heritage enough, but he will also be remembered as the composer who bridged the transition between the era when music was written exclusively for patrons and when it was first written for a paying audience, a very significant step in cultural history.
What to listen to:Final movement from Symphony No 83 (The Hen); Piano Trio in G (Gipsy Trio); The Creation.