Franz Josef Haydn
1732 - 1809

Franz Josef Haydn

Josef Haydn is one of the three great composers of the Classical period, which was centered in Vienna, and one of the most creative and resourceful composers in the history of music. Born more than twenty years before Mozart and almost forty years before Beethoven, Haydn greatly influenced the two younger composers. Mozart referred to him as "Papa Haydn." It was Haydn who developed the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata into complex and meaningful structures, laying the foundation for Beethoven and Brahms and the other great symphonic composers who followed him. Many composers still write music based on the models developed by Haydn more than two hundred years ago.

Josef Haydn was born on March 31, 1732, to a musical family* living in modest circumstances in Rohrau, Austria, a rural community where Slavonic folk music was certainly to be heard. Haydn was sent at the age of eight to Vienna to become a choirboy at Saint Stephen's Cathedral; this beginning of his musical education was predominantly Austrian and urban. The Cathedral provided Haydn with musical instruction, and he learned to play harpsichord, organ, and violin. After his voice changed and he was forced to leave the choir, Haydn spent ten difficult years earning a living as a musician, while studying composition under J.J. Fux and C.P.E. Bach.

In 1759, at age 26, Haydn got his first job as director of music and composer working for Count Morzin, for whom he wrote his first symphony and composed mostly instrumental music. The Morzin residence was in Vienna during the winter and at Lukavec Palace near Pilsen, Bohemia (in today's Czech Republic) during the summer.

In 1760 Haydn married Maria Anna Keller; she was the sister of a pupil with whom he had fallen in love, but who had become a nun. The marriage was not a happy one, for Haydn's wife had little understanding of music and little affection for him. Her jealousy may have been justified, according to some biographers, especially in the later years of their marriage.

In 1761, Haydn was hired by the Esterhazys, a very wealthy aristocratic family. The Esterhazy castle was first at Eisenstadt, 30 miles south of Vienna, but soon the prince built a summer palace on the site of a shooting lodge at Eszterhaza in Hungary. Eszterhaza rivaled Versailles in grandeur and eventually was so magnificent that the household stayed there for much of the year; it became Haydn's chief place of work. In the isolation of these country estates Haydn developed his own style and experimented with the new forms of the emerging Viennese Classical style.

Although Haydn was clearly a servant of the Esterhazys, the situation was extremely advantageous for the young composer. Nicklaus Esterhazy was a great music lover, and retained an ensemble of first-rate musicians. He played the baryton (a bowed stringed musical instrument with sympathetic strings that could also be plucked) and was sophisticated in his musical taste, so that Haydn was not forced to compose popular works as he might have been had he had a larger public to please. In his early years Haydn chiefly wrote instrumental music for the twice-weekly concerts and the prince's Tafelmusik, as well as works for the prince's instrument, the baryton, for which he composed about 125 trios in ten years. Haydn's work flourished, with symphonies, string quartets, operas and many other works. He was extremely prolific and much appreciated by his employer.

Indeed, the maturity of Haydn's string quartets, which may be considered the first true masterpieces of the genre, inspired Mozart to compose his "Haydn Quartets" in emulation. Haydn's acquaintance with Mozart (who was younger by 25 years) was a stimulus to Haydn's composing as well. In 1784-85 they played quartets together in Vienna, with Haydn on first violin and Mozart on viola, and clearly admired each other greatly.

Haydn's reputation and influence spread throughout Europe as his music was published and widely circulated. In 1790, Nicklaus (Prince Mikl¢s) Esterh zy died. His son, Prince Antal was not interested in music. Still, he retained Haydn (unlike most of the musicians), but Haydn was free to live in Vienna and to travel.

Haydn was invited to England by the German-born concert manager and violinist Johann Peter Salomon. During his first trip to London in 1791-92, Oxford University awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Music ? the high point of Haydn?s journey to England. He agreed to return to England in 1794-95 following his great artistic and commercial success there. Between these two journeys the young Ludwig van Beethoven was Haydn's pupil in Vienna.

Haydn composed his last 12 symphonies ? known as the "Salomon Symphonies" ? for performance in London, where they enjoyed great success. He also wrote choral pieces, piano trios, piano sonatas and songs (some to English words) and arranged British folksongs for publishers in London and Edinburgh. He was honored generously and played, sang and conducted before the royal family. He was moved by performances of Handel's music by large choirs in Westminster Abbey.

Haydn spent his last years in Vienna, where he composed a set of magnificent masses in the Austrian mass tradition. Also during this period he composed his most famous string quartets, among them the "Emperor Quartet," which contains the melody that became the national anthem first of the Austrian Empire (the popular "God Save Emperor Franz") in 1797 and today the German national anthem, and also composed 445 arrangements of Scottish songs. As a result of his fascination with Handel?s oratorios in England and influenced by his librettist, the amateur musician Baron von Swieten, Haydn wrote his most famous oratorios. "Die Sch”pfung" (The Creation, 1796-98) was written to van Swieten's German translation of a libretto said to have been submitted to Handel.

Following on its great success, Haydn composed "Die Jahreszeiten" (The Seasons, 1799-1801), completing it at age 67 (amazing in itself). It was based on a poem "The Seasons" by the Englishman James Thompson; the poem was considered by many to be the first substantial one in English to have Nature as its main subject. Haydn's "Die Jahreszeiten" marks not only the beginning of a new century but also the beginning of a new era in art, the coming transition from Classical objectivity to the more subjective Romantic era. First performed in the spring of 1801, one of the early performances at court featured the Empress, wife of Franz I, in the soprano role!

During the occupation of Vienna by the French in 1809, Haydn was shown great respect even by Napoleon. He was widely revered, even though by then his music was old-fashioned compared with Beethoven's.

Haydn died peacefully in his sleep on May 31, 1809, in Vienna, attended by a guard of honor outside his house. Haydn's gravestone is at its original place, today called Haydn Park in the 12th district of Vienna; there is a memorial in the house where he died in the 6th district of Vienna and a Haydn Museum in the house where he lived in Eisenstadt. In 1820 his body was taken to the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, where there is a mausoleum with a marble sarcophagus.

*Franz Josef Haydn's younger brother Michael Haydn (1737-1806) became a choirboy at St. Stephen's in Vienna, like his older brother and was dismissed when his voice broke. He became Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Grosswardein (then in Hungary, now in Oradea, Romania), and later Konzertmeister to the Archbishop of Salzburg. He remained in Salzburg for the rest of his life, becoming organist at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche and then succeeding Mozart as organist at Salzburg Cathedral. Michael Haydn wrote some less memorable chamber music and symphonies. However, in his lifetime he was considered a better composer of church music than his brother Josef, being a master of the old a capella style.

Franz Josef Haydn pencil sketch by George Dance, 1794

Franz Josef Haydn's Music

Josef Haydn's musical output was prolific. Some of his compositions are shown here to illustrate the variety of genres in which he wrote.

Church Music: Haydn's duties as Kapellmeister to the Esterhazy family involved providing church music, as well as music for entertainment. The Mass settings include the well known Nelson Mass, celebrating the English admiral's victory at the Battle of the Nile, and seven later Masses, all with popular German nicknames, "Heiligmesse", "Paukenmesse," "Coronation Mass," "Theresienmesse," "Schoepfungsmesse," and "Harmoniemesse."

Oratorios: Haydn's visits to London suggested to him the musical possibilities of oratorio, resulting in "Die Schoepfung" (The Creation), with a text by Baron van Swieten based on English sources, and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons), with a text by van Swieten based on James Thompson, first performed in 1801.

Stage Works: Haydn's two dozen operas, in German and Italian, have received rather less attention than many of his other works and are rarely performed, primarily because they have been overshadowed by Mozart's. Most of Haydn's operas were written for performance at Esterh za, either in the principal theater or in the marionette theater.

Vocal Music: Haydn wrote a number of songs, providing nearly 400 British folk-song arrangements for the Edinburgh publisher Thomson, in addition to songs and cantatas in German and English.

Symphonies: Haydn's 108 symphonies range from works written for the relatively modest court orchestra of two oboes, two horns and strings, to the greater complexity of his larger scale London Symphonies, the twelve written for performance in London, including a number of works with nicknames, such as "The Surprise," "The Miracle," "The Military," "The Clock," and "The Drumroll."

Concertos: Of Haydn's concertos, the work written in 1796 for the newly developed and soon to be obsolete keyed trumpet, is the best known, closely rivalled by the two surviving Cello Concertos. Three Violin Concertos and one Horn Concerto remain. The keyboard concertos, which have recently entered popular repertoire, were originally designed either for organ or harpsichord and were written in the earlier part of Haydn's career, before his employment by the Esterhazys.

Chamber Music: Haydn was a prolific composer of chamber music, with a considerable number of compositions for his principal patron, Prince Nicklaus Esterhazy, who played the baryton. For the conventional string quartet Haydn wrote some 83 works; nicknames reflect the popularity of many of these works, such as "The Joke," "The Bird," and "The Frog." In addition to a number of works for two violins and cello and 126 Barton trios, Haydn wrote a number of piano trios, the best known of these being the G major Trio with its "Gypsy Rondo."

Keyboard Works: Haydn composed nearly fifty keyboard sonatas, the earlier intended for harpsichord and the last for the newly developed hammer-action fortepiano. The final works in this form include the English Sonata in C major, written during Haydn's second visit to London.


Arnold, Denis (Ed.) The New Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford University Press, 1983.

Blackwood, Alan. Encyclopedia of Music. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1980.

Classical Insights: Hall of Fame (Haydn) [web site]

Classical Music Pages, by Matt Boynick, material extracted with permission from The Grove Concise Dictionary of Music edited by Stanley Sadie (Haydn) [web site]

The Classical Music Website (Haydn) [web site]

Encyclopedia of Austria (Haydn) [web site]

Picture Gallery (Haydn) [web site]

This brief biography, compiled by Carol Traxler from several internet and other sources, appeared in the May 1999 issue of Quarter Notes, the newsletter of the Washington Saengerbund, Walter Mueller, editor.