Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is one of the most prolific and best-known Viennese composers during the Classical Period of music. Though he is often called Franz Joseph Haydn, he was never known by this name during his lifetime, and music purists often insist the “Franz” be dropped when referring to Haydn.
Haydn grew up in a very musical family. Accounts refer to his family often singing together or with neighbors in their home in Rohrau. Haydn’s father was a well-known folk musician. Two brothers were also successful musicians in their lifetimes. Michael Haydn became a composer, though he certainly did not approach his brother in talent. Johann Evangelist Haydn was a well-loved tenor. Both parents recognized that Haydn had extraordinary musical gifts. As such, he was sent to study music with a distant relative, Johann Franck.
Haydn was only six at the time, and accounts tell that he was frequently hungry and poorly treated by Franck. However, in his studies he learned the harpsichord, violin and also how to sing. His ability to sing brought Haydn to the attention of George von Reutter, who took over Haydn’s care and enlisted him as a member of the popular boys’ choir in Vienna at St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
Still suffering from neglect by Reutter, and not given much musical training, Haydn managed to amass quite a bit of knowledge at St. Stephen’s. It was considered the musical center of Vienna in many respects, and almost every leading composer of the time performed there at one time or another. How a hungry little boy could continue to love music and learn so much is hard to guess. Perhaps learning was his refuge from an otherwise neglected childhood.
When Haydn was seventeen, he could no longer sing the high boy’s tenor and was dismissed from the choir. For several years he traveled as a freelance musician before being hired as an assistant director (kappellmeister) by the Eszterházy family, one of the most wealthy and well-connected families in Austria. He soon became director or conductor of the family’s small orchestral group, and would remain there for thirty years, producing numerous compositions. He became well known outside of royal circles, and wrote about half of his work for publication and half for the orchestra he directed.
Mozart and Haydn became friends in the 1780s. Haydn was overwhelmed by Mozart’s genius, and the two became inseparable. It seems logical that Haydn could easily have related to the hardships that Mozart endured as a child prodigy. The two were also part of a Masonic lodge dedicated to Catholicism. The two great composers frequently played string quartets together, and Mozart dedicated a series of string quartets to “his Masonic brother,” Haydn.
A trip to England in the 1790s earned Haydn even more praise. During this time he composed some of his most well known works of today, including the lovely Surprise Symphony. Now quite wealthy, he retired to Austria, fighting for a time an illness, which made it impossible for him to compose. He was able to compose a small patriotic melody that is now used in both the Austrian and German national anthems.
Haydn was beloved by many who remarked on his sense of humor, his humility, and his irrepressible energy. His marriage in 1760 to Maria Anna Keller was unhappy, and they had no children together. Despite his devout nature as a Catholic, it is thought he had several mistresses throughout his lifetime and may have fathered a child or two with mistress Luigia Polzelli. Overlooking his infidelities however, he was said to be kind as well as gifted. He heavily influenced the developing musical forms of the symphony and the string quartet. His work is considered the most influential on other artists of the Classical era.