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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn

Part One: 1732-1766

At the eastern end of modern-day Austria, very close to the border with Slovakia, is the village of Rohrau. 45 km south east of Vienna, 25 km south west of Bratislava, and about 30 km north west of the Hungarian border, Rohrau sits right in the centre of Europe, and it's always been a place where different cultures and customs have met and co-existed.

Rohrau is not at all large; even at the start of 2014 the population was less than 1,600 people. But in 1732, when it was part of the estates owned by Count Karl Anton Harrach and his family, a baby was born in the village whose life's work and reputation would bring Rohrau fame for centuries to come.

Mathias Haydn was a master wheelwright in Rohrau and a local magistrate; he acted in some respects as the village's mayor. His wife Anna Maria Haydn, née Koller, had been a cook at the Harrach castle until she married Mathias in 1728. Mathias and Anna Maria Haydn sang and played simple instruments in the home, and there were musicians in their extended family. But among the couple's surviving children were three sons who all became professional musicians: Franz Joseph (born 1732), Johann Michael (born 1737) and Johann Evangelist (born 1743).

The two older brothers went on to become internationally famous as composers and both almost never used their first names. Michael Haydn, the middle son, had a distinguished career mostly based in Salzburg, where his colleagues included Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart. [read about him here] But the eldest, Joseph, stands as one of the most profoundly gifted, industrious and dazzling composers of any age.

Haydn's birth home in Rohrau, now a museum.

Documentary evidence for the first 30 years of Haydn's life is scanty, and what biographies there are often contradict one another. He certainly spent the first 5 or so years of his life in Rohrau before his sweet singing voice was noticed by his father's cousin, Johann Mathias Franck. Franck lived in the nearby town of Hainburg, about 10 km away, where he was school principal and choir director at the town's main church. Haydn, aged about 5, left home and went to Hainburg to live with Franck, who saw to it that the boy had a basic education and developed his musical skills. Haydn's parents were hopeful that this experience would lead the boy into entering the priesthood, but there was never any indication that Haydn himself felt he had any such calling; his life was devoted to music right from the start.

Even in old age, Haydn acknowledged his debt to Franck, saying, "I will be grateful to this man even in the grave". In Hainburg, in addition to reading, writing, mathematics and religious instruction, the boy had vital early musical experiences, including at least rudimentary training on many different stringed and wind instruments, as well as harpsichord, and of course singing. He even learned how to play the timpani.

All this happened between the ages of about 5 and 8. In 1740, when he was about 8, the Kapellmeister of St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, Georg Reutter, was touring the region, looking for new talent for his choir. The Hainburg parish priest suggested he hear Haydn. Reutter was impressed and the boy was off to Vienna.

Many accounts of Haydn's early life stress the idea that he was virtually self-taught as a child, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In Hainburg, Franck saw to it that the boy's education was consistent and wide-ranging, and in Vienna this most definitely continued. He spent about ten years as a soprano in the most important church in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In addition to hearing and singing some of the best music available at the time, he also had instruction in singing, harpsichord and violin from the best available teachers. Reutter himself taught the boys basic musical theory and encouraged Haydn to improvise on some of the music he sang in services. In short, it must have been a heavenly experience for a musically-gifted boy from the boondocks to have been thrust into the musical centre of Catholic Europe.

St Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

Haydn remained in the St Stephen's choir until his voice broke when he was about 18. (This seems a late age to us, but in the 18th century boys' voices broke later than they do today.) In his later years in the choir he, with the other older boys, would have been entrusted with the teaching of the younger boys, and one of these was Haydn's own brother, Michael, who joined the choir around 1745. Another fascinating possibility is that Haydn may have sung at the funeral of Antonio Vivaldi, who died in poverty in Vienna in 1741 and whose funeral was held in St Stephen's.

Haydn's dismissal from the choir probably took place in 1749. It seems Reutter might have suggested he become a castrato before his voice broke, but Haydn's father refused permission for this. So when he was no longer a soprano, the 18 year old was on the streets of Vienna on his own.

So many of Haydn's early works are difficult to date accurately, but one of the first for which we do have an accurate date is his earliest known Mass setting, a Missa brevis in F composed in 1749, the year of his dismissal from St Stephen's. The circumstances of its composition and first performance are not known, but it became well-known and circulated widely in the second half of the 18th century. It's a neat, concise setting of the Mass which would have been typical of settings used in daily Masses in Austria at the time. [listen]

The early 1750s were tough for Haydn. He himself said that he was "forced to eke out a wretched existence by teaching young people", while devoting himself to composition at night. He lived by his wits and when considered together, the various reports of these years show a young man keen to learn, and to do anything musical to earn some cash. In the process he developed not only as a composer, violinist and keyboard player, but he became completely self-sufficient and wise in the ways of the world. He lived cheaply and was helped by kind friends, and he quickly developed an excellent reputation.

Around 1750 he travelled to the Benedictine pilgrimage church at Mariazell, about 140 km south west of Vienna. Much later Haydn would write two of his mature Masses for this church, but on this occasion he tried to get the choir to sing some of his earliest sacred pieces. The choirmaster wouldn't allow it so the next day Haydn put out the parts himself for the musicians and got them to sing the piece anyway. It's very likely that his early Lauda Sion (Hob.23c:5) was one of the works he heard on this occasion. [listen]

Haydn's life in the early 1750s was unbelievably hectic. He boarded at a house connected with St Michael's church in Vienna, where the composer and singer Marianne von Martínez also lived. Haydn received free board in return for giving her singing and keyboard lessons. The famous opera poet Metastasio was also living at the same house, and through Metastasio he met the elderly but still famous opera composer and teacher Nicola Porpora. Porpora engaged Haydn to play for his singing lessons, even taking Haydn with him when he travelled. Through these travels he met important musical figures of the day, including the composers Gluck and Wagenseil, and probably also Dittersdorf and the man who would later be Kapellmeister to the imperial court, Giuseppe Bonno.

Nicola Porpora

So it was very much a case of networking and of one thing leading to another for Haydn in his early 20s. He made the most of every opportunity, and he later paid tribute to Porpora for teaching him about the Italian style of singing, and the Italian language, as well as fundamentals of composition.

In Vienna Haydn also played the organ for church services, led small orchestras in churches from the violin, and at night played in serenade orchestras for balls and other social occasions. He composed furiously for all these involvements and without doubt a huge amount of his early music written for these events is now lost to us.

Most disappointingly, the music for Haydn's first-known theatrical venture, Der krumme Teufel (The Lame Devil), is completely lost. This comic play-with-music apparently had two highly successful performances around 1751 or 52 before being banned due to its offensive text.

From the mid-1750s Haydn had a solid reputation in Vienna. His fees for teaching increased substantially and he was sought after as a composer and performer. It was at this time that he had his first real patron, Baron Carl Joseph Fürnberg, who employed him as music teacher to his children. Fürnberg also commissioned music from him, including the earliest string quartets. It was at this time, around 1756, that the glorious stream of Haydn quartets began. [listen]

And here again, one musical break led to the next. It was Baron Fürnberg who recommended Haydn to a certain Count Morzin, who needed a music director for his residence in Vienna. According to Haydn scholar James Webster, it was Count Karl Joseph Franz Morzin, the son of the reigning Count, who employed Haydn. HC Robbins Landon maintained, though, that Haydn worked for the reigning Count, Ferdinand Maximilian Franz Morzin. The most recent scholarship indicates that, whichever Count it was, Haydn started working for the Morzin establishment in 1757.

But before this Haydn had a crisis of the heart. He had fallen in love with one of his students, Therese Keller. She was the daughter of the wigmaker Johann Peter Keller who is said to have been one of the people who assisted Haydn during his years as a struggling freelancer. Haydn was heartbroken when, on 12 May 1756, Therese took her vows as a nun. According to HC Robbins Landon, Haydn's E major setting of the Salve regina was composed for this event, and this is really the first of Haydn's works to reveal his professional status as a composer. [listen]

The influence of Porpora is clear in this beautiful work, especially in the poised, Italian style of the solo soprano part. It's a huge step forward in technical assurance from the earlier Missa brevis.

Once he was employed by Count Morzin from about 1757, Haydn found himself in his first steady paying job. His salary was 200 gulden per year, plus free lodging and board at the officers' table. He stayed until around the end of 1760; that is, for about three years. During this time he had a small musical establishment at his disposal and with his customary zeal he made the most of it. At the Morzin establishment he composed his first 15 or so symphonies, although these are not the symphonies numbered 1 to 15; it's now known that the traditional numbering of Haydn's symphonies is not in chronological order for at least the first 40 or so. It seems that the symphony we now call number 1 was indeed his first, but another very early work from the Morzin period is the one now known as no 37, composed around 1758. [listen]

The Morzin period also saw the creation of many of Haydn's early keyboard sonatas, keyboard trios, divertimenti, concertos, string trios, wind partitas and possibly the Op 2 string quartets.

The keyboard sonata now called no 13 was almost certainly composed during this time. The is the last of its four movements. [listen]

Count Morzin had two main properties which he frequented. Winters were spent at his palace in Vienna, while the summers were spent in Bohemia at his summer estate at Lukavec. It's likely that the wind band partitas Haydn wrote for Morzin were played outdoors at Lukavec. Haydn wrote many of these sorts of works during his career; this movement comes from one which was certainly written before 1760, which assigns it to the Morzin period. [listen]

Morzin Palace in Lukavec

On 4 November 1760 Haydn married Anna Maria Keller, the sister of Therese Keller who had entered the nunnery four years earlier. The reasons for this marriage, which was an obvious mis-match right from the start, are unclear. Did he misread his emotions, or did he feel a sense of indebtedness to the girl's father? It was undoubtedly an unhappy marriage, although we only have Haydn's side to the story, and both parties had extramarital liaisons over the years. Haydn himself said to his biographer Griesinger: "I was less indifferent to the charms of other women".

Unauthenticated miniature of Anna Maria Haydn attributed to Ludwig Guttenbrunn

Exactly when, or how, Haydn came to leave the Morzin court is unclear. Morzin had to dissolve his musical establishment for financial reasons, but Haydn's marriage certificate (November 1760) states he was Morzin's music director so he must have left after that. And we don't really know how he came to be employed by the fabulously wealthy Esterházy court in 1761. What is without doubt, though, is that from 1761 Haydn began the most important and long-lasting employment situation of his life. He had served a Baron, and then a Count. Now he served a Prince.

The Esterházy family, according to James Webster, was "the richest and most influential among the Hungarian nobility, [and] had long been important patrons of culture and the arts". Prince Paul Anton Esterházy already had a music director with the title of Kapellmeister, Gregor Joseph Werner, then in his late 60s. Werner had been appointed in 1728 and he was best-known for his church music. He also wrote symphonies and chamber works but by 1761 his style was regarded as old fashioned and he was in declining health. Haydn was made Vice Kapellmeister, a post created especially for him, ostensibly to assist Werner, who remained responsible for sacred music; Haydn's initial role was to work almost exclusively in the area of instrumental music. He was not a servant but a professional employee, a house officer. In addition to free uniforms and meals he received an annual salary of 400 gulden, twice what he earned under Count Morzin.

Prince Paul Anton Esterházy

Haydn's appointment happened in tandem with the appointment of a number of new musicians, and was part of an attempt to modernise and expand the court's musical establishment.

The Esterházy court was based in the town of Eisenstadt, about 60 km south of Vienna and close to the present Hungarian border. The prince's palace still stands in the centre of the town, and Haydn had his own house nearby. Prince Paul Anton was in declining health in 1761 when Haydn was appointed and he died the following year. As he had no children, he was succeeded by his brother, Prince Nikolaus, who was even more passionate about music than his predecessor. He immediately increased Haydn's salary by 50% to 600 gulden.

Prince Nikolaus Esterházy I

Werner resented Haydn and often complained about him; it can't have been easy for the older man. It was assumed that when Werner died, Haydn would replace him and Werner knew it. The Esterházys were careful to respect their long-standing employee in his declining years and yet it can't have been easy for the 29-year old Haydn to have to defer to a musician twice his age when he was chafing at the bit to take up an amazing opportunity.

Still, the first five years at the Esterházy establishment saw Haydn produce some astonishing work: about 25 symphonies, many concertos for members of his small house orchestra, and smaller works such as dances, divertimenti and chamber pieces.

Among his first symphonies for the Esterházys - perhaps the very first - was a set of three, now known as nos 6, 7 and 8 - which had programmatic titles: Morning, Midday and Evening. They were also designed to show off the individual members of the orchestra as they contain solo passages for most of the principal players. And it's important to remember that with the Esterházy orchestra Haydn led from the violin and not the keyboard; the evidence suggests that there was no keyboard continuo in the Esterházy symphonies, and that any first violin solos were played by Haydn himself. This is the finale of the Midday symphony. [listen]

Esterházy Palace, Eisenstadt

Haydn's compositions for Esterházy in his years as Vice Kapellmeister didn't completely exclude vocal works. His first Te Deum setting dates from this period, as does the opera Acide and some secular vocal works in honour of Prince Nikolaus's name day on 6 December. This is the name day cantata for 1763. [listen]

One work which was written in these early years and which is now a regular part of the repertoire is Haydn's first cello concerto, the concerto in C, written around 1765 for the brilliant cellist in the Esterházy orchestra, Joseph Weigl. The work was known to exist because of an entry in Haydn's personal catalogue, but it was lost for nearly 200 years until it was rediscovered in Prague in 1962. It's a real showstopper, and indicates Weigl must have had a stunning technique. [listen]

On 3 March 1766, five years after Haydn's appointment, Kapellmeister Werner died. This signalled Haydn's immediate elevation to the post and at last the whole musical establishment of the Esterházys was his to command. He was about to get very, very busy.

Guttenbrunn: Portrait of Haydn painted c. 1791 depicting Haydn's appearance c. 1770

Part Two: 1765-1790

In late 1765, not long before Werner's death, tensions arose in Haydn's relationship with both Prince Nikolaus and the court administrator, Ludwig Peter Rahier. The flautist in Haydn's orchestra, Franz Sigl, accidentally burnt down a house (he was apparently shooting birds and some shot from his gun landed on a roof, setting it alight), and for this Rahier recommended Sigl be imprisoned and Haydn reprimanded by the prince. Haydn went in to bat for Sigl and had his punishment reduced to dismissal; not long afterwards he even managed to have him reinstated.

Werner then wrote an angry letter to the prince accusing Haydn of all sorts of professional misconduct, including neglecting the instruments and musical archives and not properly supervising the singers. The Prince responded by reprimanding Haydn in a letter, commanding him to prepare a catalogue of the instruments and musical archives. Very pointedly, he added a PS which made it clear he expected Haydn to compose more baryton music for him to play.

A baryton

The baryton is an instrument which even in the 1760s was regarded as old fashioned and slightly odd. It's a member of the viol family, played between the knees like a viola da gamba or small cello. It has strings which are fingered in the normal way, but it also has a separate set of unfingered strings running under and alongside the fingerboard. These provide sympathetic resonance, and can also be plucked to provide an accompaniment. Prince Nikolaus was an accomplished baryton player and in response to this order, Haydn proceeded to shower his employer with music for the instrument, mostly in the form of trios for baryton, viola and cello. Between 1766 and 1775 Haydn wrote no fewer than 126 baryton trios, in addition to other works involving the instrument. [listen]

Now that he was Kapellmeister, Haydn had complete responsibility for the Esterházy musical establishment. In addition to composing instrumental music - which had been his role since his appointment as Vice Kapellmeister back in 1761 - he now took on the responsibility for vocal music, both sacred and secular. Even though his salary was unchanged with his promotion, he now bought a house in Eisenstadt.

And speaking of houses, Prince Nikolaus was becoming increasingly excited about his new castle, inspired - like many such palatial homes at the time - by Versailles. Called Esterháza, this magnificent palace in the country was being built on reclaimed swap land about 45 km away to the south east of Eisenstadt, in what is now the town of Fertőd in north western Hungary.


In the summer of 1766 the Prince spent some time in the still-incomplete castle, taking many members of the court with him, including Haydn and some musicians. This annual pilgrimage would become longer and longer each year.

From 1766, in addition to composing large amounts of baryton music, Haydn's output included a lot of large-scale sacred music. His first Mass for nearly a decade was written for the town of Mariazell where the Esterházys had endowed a chapel. This was the first of his so-called Missa Cellensis settings, written in honour of the Virgin and sometimes called the "St Cecilia Mass". It's an incredible work, full of brilliance and power. [listen]

The other major sacred work from this period is Haydn's expansive setting of the Stabat Mater, a large-scale work lasting around 70 minutes which rapidly brought him fame. [listen]

In addition to these two masterworks, Haydn also composed several other Mass settings over the next few years, as well as a setting of the Salve Regina, his first oratorio, Il ritorno di Tobia (The Return of Tobias), and a cantata called Applausus for the Cistercian monastery in Zwettl.

But all this was relatively minor compared to what Haydn's employer wanted to do in his new castle. From 1766 Prince Nikolaus started to perform opera at Esterháza, and at first these performances were sporadic, performed on special occasions designed to mark the visits of notable people. So in addition to being responsible for sacred music, and instrumental music (as well as all his administrative duties), Haydn now had to compose, arrange and perform operas as well.

Between 1766 and 1770 he composed three comic operas for the prince - La canterina, Lo speziale and La pescatrici. Then there was a hiatus of a couple of years during which he was able to devote himself again to instrumental composition. The late 1760s and early 1770s are Haydn's so-called "Sturm und Drang" period, in which his music pushes the boundaries with wild, dark, passionate emotional states. The roughly 16 symphonies of this period are some of the earliest of his symphonies which are heard regularly today. Perhaps the darkest is No 52, a work of bleak and tortured anguish. [listen]

By 1772, Prince Nikolaus - and his entire court - were spending ten months of the year at Esterháza, with only two months during the winter spent back at Eisenstadt. Most of the musicians were not allowed to bring their wives and families to the country estate; Haydn was one of the few allowed such a privilege (ironic, considering his was an unhappy marriage). It was late in 1772 that he and his musicians performed the famous - and very angry-sounding - "Farewell" symphony as a none-too-subtle hint that they wanted to get back to Eisenstadt, a hint the prince graciously accepted. [listen]

Haydn also returned to writing string quartets in the early 1770s, although there's no record of when or even if these works were performed for the Esterházy court. Between 1770 and 1772 he wrote the Op 9, Op 17 and Op 20 sets. [listen]

And at least four of Haydn's keyboard sonatas come from this period as well, and they also occasionally reflect the more fiery, dramatic style we know from the symphonies. [listen]

From 1773 two significant things happened in Haydn's composing life. On a more general note, the angst-ridden, "Sturm und Drang" style passed, and his composing style in general became lighter. He stopped writing string quartets and continued writing symphonies and sonatas.

The second major event in Haydn's life in 1773 was the rekindling of the prince's passion for the theatre. Between 1773 and 1775 he wrote three more operas for the court: L'infideltà delusa (Infidelity Outwitted) and L'incontro improvviso (The Unexpected Encounter) were performed in the new opera theatre the prince had custom-built, while a German-language marionette opera, Philemon und Baucis, was performed in a separate, smaller marionette theatre. But the prince's appetite for theatre grew exponentially in the mid- to late-1770s, and rather than only giving theatre performances when he had special visitors, he now mounted complete seasons of plays and operas for his own enjoyment and for the enjoyment of his family and guests. This goes a long way to explaining why the court spent so much time at Esterháza and so little time in Eisenstadt.

At first there were more plays than operas. In 1778 there were 184 evenings of plays, 50 evenings of operas, and only 6 concerts. Haydn was responsible for the operas and concerts, and also composed music for some of the plays. This workload increased to an incredible level by 1786. In that year there were 125 opera evenings, comprising 8 new productions and 9 revivals (that is, 17 different operas), each given multiple performances.

Haydn only composed a fraction of the works performed in these opera seasons; other operas were acquired from Vienna and adapted by him to suit his house singers, who, like the orchestra, were full time employees of the court. He supervised the copying of parts, ran all the rehearsals and of course conducted every performance. In the 15 years of the Esterháza opera seasons, from 1776 to 1790, he directed many hundreds of performances of 88 different operas for his employer. [listen]

In the middle of this period, on 18 November, 1779, the main opera theatre at Esterháza burnt down. A great deal of music, by Haydn and others, was lost, along with many of the instruments. But the prince's appetite for music was such that opera performances resumed only three days later, in the smaller marionette theatre which had been hastily enlarged to make this possible.


Haydn's later operas for the court were: Il mondo della luna (The World of the Moon), La vera costanza (True Constancy), L'isola disabitata (The Deserted Island), La fedeltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded), Orlando paladino and Armida. There were three new German marionette operas as well. Armida was premiered in 1784 and was Haydn's last opera for Esterházy. It was a huge success; over the six years until 1790 it had 54 performances at Esterháza, as well as being performed elsewhere during his lifetime. [listen]

It's not clear why Armida was the last opera Haydn wrote for Prince Nikolaus, but his job as an opera impresario continued until the end of the decade, in addition to writing sacred music and instrumental music as time allowed and circumstances dictated. Operas by other composers presented by Haydn and his company between 1776 and 1790 included works by Pasquale Anfossi, Domenico Cimarosa, Giovanni Paisiello, Niccolò Piccinni, Antonio Salieri and Giuseppe Sarti, in addition to the eleven major works by Haydn himself.

Substantial adaptation was required when Haydn presented other composers' works at Esterháza. He had only a small house cast and little opportunity to engage guest singers. Works had to be altered to suit his singers, and most of the adaptation he undertook was to suit one singer in particular, the mezzo soprano Luigia Polzelli, who, with her much older violinist husband, had joined the court in 1779. Haydn and Luigia were lovers, something which was probably an open secret within the court. There is also considerable speculation that Haydn was the father of Luigia's second son, who was born in 1783.

Luigia Polzelli

As I mentioned earlier, Haydn's marriage was an unhappy one from the start. In 1760 he had married Anna Maria Keller, the sister of Therese Keller, with whom he had been deeply in love four years earlier, before she entered a convent. It seems that the Haydns, who still lived together despite their difficulties, had an understanding about extra-marital liaisons; Anna Maria Haydn is said to have had a relationship with the painter Ludwig Guttenbrun while he was at the Esterházy court in the early 1770s. Joseph Haydn's love for Luigia Polzelli lasted long after they ceased working together, as his letters attest, until he fell in love with another woman. But that's another story.

During the height of Prince Nikolaus's passion for the theatre he seems to have completely lost interest in instrumental music. Haydn's baryton music stopped in 1775, and between 1776 and 1781 he wrote only nine new symphonies. And even then a number of these symphonies recycle music which had been written for theatrical productions.

Haydn's professional life changed completely on new year's day, 1779. On that day he signed a new contract with his employer which acknowledged the fact that Haydn (now aged 46) was now an internationally famous composer, a far cry from his status in 1761. The most important change in the new contract was the removal of the restriction, spelt out very clearly in 1761, that he could not compose music for anyone other than the Esterházy family without the prince's express permission. The new contract made it possible for Haydn to address the fact that his works were being circulated all over Europe in pirated copies without his authorisation and with no payment to him. With the establishment of the Viennese music publishing house of Artaria the year before, he now had the means to make his music available on his terms and he wasted no time in doing exactly that.

With this new freedom Haydn's compositional activity in the 1780s took off in an attempt to capitalise on the financial possibilities now available to him. It must also be said that Haydn indulged in unscrupulous practices in order to make extra money from his music. He often sold the same works to different publishers in different countries. In addition he often made his "little extra" by selling manuscript copies, which still held a certain prestige, on a subscription basis, before the same works appeared in print. Vivaldi did the same sort of thing earlier in the century, and Haydn is known to have encouraged his students (Beethoven among them) to behave similarly. Haydn often told publishers or patrons that works were new when in fact they weren't, and in each case he accepted a separate fee for the same music.

Regardless of these machinations, his output rose to meet the opportunities before him. After six years in which he wrote no string quartets, the last three years of the 1780s saw the publication of the Op 50, 54, 55 and 64 quartets (a total of 18 separate works). [listen]

And after 20 years in which the piano trio had disappeared from Haydn's radar, he now produced 13 new trios. [listen]

There was also an upsurge in the writing of new piano sonatas. [listen]

And Haydn capitalised on the demands of the domestic market by writing a set of 24 lieder, a form of music-making then becoming very popular. [listen]

And on the larger scale, Haydn now produced symphonies for patrons other than his employer. Paris became a new focus of this demand in the 1780s, with eleven new symphonies: the six so-called "Paris" symphonies (Nos 82 to 87) written in 1786, Nos 88 and 89 being re-sold in Paris in 1787, and Nos 90 to 92 also written for the French capital. [listen]

One of the strangest commissions Haydn received in the 1780s came from Cadíz in Spain. This was for a set of orchestral pieces inspired by Christ's seven last utterances on the cross (the so-called "seven last words"). It resulted in one of his most moving, and most successful, works, which he later arranged for string quartet, and again for solo keyboard, as well as making a choral version. This is the complete, original orchestral version. [listen]

During all this time, though, despite the freedom Haydn now enjoyed regarding his music, he was still employed by Prince Nikolaus and still required to be resident at the court. The court spent most of the year at Esterháza (despite the message of the "Farewell" symphony all those years before), and Haydn only got to Vienna for a couple of months in winter, and sometimes briefly during Lent. He found Vienna stimulating and had many contacts there in musical, artistic, political and literary circles. It was during the 1780s that he developed his friendship with Mozart, and he was never short of female admirers. By contrast, he described Esterháza as a "wasteland".

All this came to an abrupt end in 1790 with three significant deaths. Emperor Joseph II died on 20 February, bringing to an end a period of relatively enlightened reform in the Habsburg Empire. Then five days later, Prince Nikolaus's wife died, plunging Haydn's employer into a deep depression which the composer worked hard to relieve with his music and friendship. On 28 September, though, Prince Nikolaus himself died, and Haydn's noble supporter and employer of 28 years was gone.

Nikolaus was succeeded as Prince by his son Anton, who immediately sought to rein in his father's extravagance and enormous debts. He dissolved the Esterháza musical establishment but kept Haydn on on a reduced salary with no official duties. Prince Nikolaus had left Haydn 1,000 gulden in his will and with this he wasted no time in moving permanently to Vienna.

He was now 58 and about to start a whole new chapter of his life.

Part Three: 1790-1809

In 1790, Haydn unexpectedly found himself in completely changed circumstances. The death of the extravagant and music-obsessed Prince Nikolaus Esterházy saw his son Anton, become Prince, and he sought to rein in the haemorrhaging finances of the family estates. One of his first decrees was to disband the musical establishment. Apart from a few wind players who remained for ceremonial purposes, the orchestra Haydn had directed for nearly 30 years was disbanded, and the opera singers were dismissed. Haydn was kept on as nominal Kapellmeister on a retainer but with no official duties. He was free to leave but the new prince still had call on his services when required. Haydn wasted no time in leaving the lavish but remote country estate of Esterháza (which he regarded as a "wasteland") and moved to Vienna. He was now 58.

Prince Anton Esterházy

Once it became known that Haydn was, to a large extent, a free agent for the first time since his teens, and given the fact that he was now an international celebrity, offers came in for new court appointments, all of which he refused. In addition to his salary from Esterházy he was able to command large fees for publication of his music and for other work, such as teaching and composing on commission. He didn't need another secure court appointment. But before long, circumstances conspired to steer him into what he later called the happiest period of his life.

Someone else who got wind of the death of Nikolaus Esterházy, and his famous Kapellmeister's return to Vienna, was Johann Peter Salomon. Born in Bonn in 1745 (in the very same house in which Beethoven would be born 25 years later), Salomon was a violinist, composer and concert promoter; he'd been based in London since 1781, establishing a performing career and working as an impresario, mounting his own concert series with local and international artists. He was one of the many people who had petitioned Haydn to visit London in the 1780s. That visit never took place, despite reports in the London press at the time that all was settled. Now in late 1790, Salomon was on the Continent when he heard of Haydn's changed circumstances and he dropped everything and made a beeline for Vienna. He was determined to bring Haydn to London.

Hardy: Johann Peter Salomon (c. 1790)

The story goes that Salomon arrived at Haydn's house without warning and said, "I am Salomon of London and have come to fetch you. Tomorrow we will arrange an accord".

Whether this is a completely accurate reflection of Salmon's initial approach to Haydn is open to conjecture. What can't be doubted is the fact that Haydn immediately agreed that London would be the best place for him to go at this stage of his career and he indeed quickly made an "accord" (that is, a contract) with Salomon.

The initial contract - which covered just the 1791 season - guaranteed Haydn £300 for an opera, £300 for six symphonies, £200 for the publication rights for the symphonies, £200 for 20 other compositions (such as arias and chamber works) to be played at his concerts, and at least £200 from a benefit concert. This was going to be a very lucrative venture for the famous composer.

Haydn and Salomon left Vienna on 15 December 1790 and arrived in London on 2 January 1791. The crossing of the English Channel was described in wide-eyed detail in one of Haydn's letters; it was in fact the first time he had ever seen the ocean, let alone travelled on it.

Salomon had prepared London for the arrival of a man who was already a star in England. Haydn was feted, praised and adored by all he met, and he was constantly in demand as a dinner guest, and also from people just wishing to meet him. None of the six symphonies for this visit had been written before his departure, but to give himself time to compose, he brought a number of his most recent works - and not just symphonies - to be played at the first concerts in Salomon's series. Among these were symphonies 90 and 92, which had been commissioned for Paris but not yet printed in London.

In the meantime, between the first concerts and all the demands on his time, Haydn had to compose, and compose fast. He wrote the symphonies now known as nos 95 and 96 and their premieres caused a sensation. No 96 is now called the "Miracle" symphony, but the nickname is a mistake. At one of his concerts the crowd surged forward to get a better view of the composer, after which a chandelier smashed to the ground. No-one was killed; only a few people had minor injuries. Later research has shown, though, that although this event seems to have really happened, it happened at a performance of a later symphony, no 102. The nickname, though, seems permanently stuck to no 96. [listen]

Hanover Square Rooms, principal venue of Haydn's performances in London

Haydn hadn't composed an opera since writing Armida at Esterháza in 1783 at the height of Prince Nikolaus's opera craze. Now his London contract required a new opera and he started work on L'anima del filosofo (The Soul of the Philosopher) shortly after arriving in England. This intensely dramatic, four-act version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story was in rehearsal before it was stopped by order of the King. John Gallini, the impresario who was mounting the piece, failed to get a license to perform it or any other opera as a result of political intrigues. This debacle led to Haydn's last opera being shelved and forgotten; it wasn't performed until 1951! [listen]

In May of 1791 Haydn attended one of the great Handel festivals in Westminster Abbey, a shattering and moving experience which sowed the seeds for his later oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.

After the end of the 1791 concert season in June, Haydn went to Oxford and was awarded an honorary doctorate in early July. Numerous concerts of his music took place, including the symphony no 92 which, despite being originally written for Paris, acquired the nickname "Oxford" from this time onwards. This was his first experience of England outside London, and during the summer he was invited to visit and spend time with many wealthy families on their country estates.

Haydn regarded himself as "no great beauty" and was amazed that women were drawn to him. He loved the company of women and in addition to his lover Luigia Polzelli during the Esterházy years he probably had many liaisons of varying durations. In England he maintained a discreet but passionate affair with Rebecca Schroeter, a wealthy widow. Many of their letters to each other survive to attest to strong feelings on both sides.

Hoppner: Joseph Haydn (1791)

By the end of 1791 it was clear that Haydn intended to spend another year in London and he and Salomon came to another contractual arrangement. Awkwardness resulted when Prince Anton Esterházy back in Vienna ordered him to return in order to fulfil some duties for the court, as per his contract. The prince was highly annoyed when he replied that he was not able to return for another year, and Haydn fully expected to be dismissed. The prince displayed great patience, though, and his famous composer remained on the Esterházy payroll.

In 1792 the other four symphonies of the six initially contracted were composed and performed in Salomon's concerts: nos 93, 94, 97 and 98. No 94 is the famous "Surprise" symphony and, like all the others, it was a hit from the very first note. Movements were often encored and reviewers in the press tried to outdo each other with superlatives when describing each new Haydn piece. [listen]

But in 1792, Haydn and Salomon didn't have it all their way; another concert series was set up in direct competition to Salomon's. Called "The Professional Concert" it published scurrilous rumours in the press that Haydn was past it and had run out of ideas, and they had as their drawcard the composer Ignaz Pleyel. Pleyel was an ex-student of Haydn's and the competition between their respective backers was fierce. The two men themselves, though, rose above the local fracas. They attended each other's concerts and spoke highly of each other to anyone who would listen, displaying complete professionalism and courtesy.

Ignaz Pleyel

Haydn returned to Vienna in July 1792, having spent a year and a half in England. Everyone expected that he would return the following year but 1793 was not a good year for undertaking long, hazardous journeys in Europe. Despite protestations that he was going to have an operation on his nose, it seems more likely that he just wanted a break from the constant demands made on him in London. And given the wars and rumours of wars in Europe in 1793 - the year which saw the executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette - Haydn chose to stay at home.

The 18 months he spent back in Vienna were relatively uneventful, but as he fully intended to return to London in 1794 he put the time to good use composing works for the next season. Among the music written in Vienna between the two London visits were symphony no 99 (the first of the second set of six "London" symphonies) as well as parts of nos 100 and 101. He also wrote the op 71 and 74 string quartets (making up a set of six) and the F minor piano variations. [listen]

Haydn left Vienna on 19 January 1794 and arrived in London on 5 February to start his second visit. Salomon's concert series had already started but as "The Professional Concert" organisation had disbanded, the pressure of any real competition had been removed. Symphonies 99, 100 and 101 had their premieres in 1794. Meanwhile, back in Vienna, Prince Anton Esterházy - the third member of the noble family for whom Haydn had worked - died. He was succeeded by his son, Prince Nikolaus II, whose call on Haydn's services in the ensuing years would bring about some of the composer's greatest music.

Even without intense competition, Haydn always sought to make his symphonies fresh and exciting for the London public. Again, every new work was a hit, but the use of military percussion in symphony no 100 was a special treat. [listen]

Haydn stayed on in England for another year but in 1795 Salomon abandoned his concert season. Haydn now performed in a series called "Opera Concerts" mounted by the violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, remembered nowadays as the composer of a large number of virtuoso violin concertos. These concerts in 1795 saw the first performances of Haydn's last three symphonies - 102, 103 and 104 - as well as many other works composed especially for this season, such as string quartets and arias.

The two visits to London between 1791 and 1795 were monumentally important to Haydn. Before he left for the last time he tallied up all the music he'd written especially for England, and it totalled a staggering 768 sheets of music. Twelve symphonies, an opera, huge numbers of chamber works, arias, dances, sonatas and songs... It was an incredible legacy. And he made a great deal of money, too. The London contracts grossed him 24,000 gulden, more than 20 times his annual salary at the Esterházy court.

Hardy: Joseph Haydn (1791)

With his return to Vienna at the end of 1795 Haydn was indisputably established as the most famous composer in Europe. He was 63 and full of energy, a sought-after teacher and mentor, and a composer whose "genius box" (to use a term coined in England) was bottomless. After 1796, though, he wrote very little instrumental music. In addition to one piano trio, the only genre of non-vocal music which garnered much attention at this time was the string quartet, with the composition of the op 76 and 77 sets in 1797 and 1799. The trumpet concerto, commissioned to show the possibilities of the newly-invented keyed trumpet, dates from this period, but this was his only purely orchestral work after London. [listen]

Knoller: Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II (1793)

Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II made few demands on his famous Kapellmeister, but the one thing he did require was a new Mass every September to mark the name day of his wife, Princess Maria Hermenegild. The prince had largely abandoned his grandfather's extravagant castle in the Hungarian marshes and the court now divided its time between Vienna and Eisenstadt. The Mass was celebrated each year in Eisenstadt and led to the incredible series of six Masses Haydn produced between 1796 and 1801.

The first in the series was probably the Mass in honour of St Bernard of Offida, known as the Heiligmesse or "Sanctus Mass" because the Sanctus movement was based on a popular Austrian setting of the text. [listen]

The next Mass was the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War), also composed in 1796 and performed for the Esterházys in 1797. [listen] In 1797 Haydn was working on a much greater project, his monumental oratorio The Creation, setting a libretto adapted for him from an English libretto he brought back from London. The Creation is a stupendous marvel in every respect. Quite apart from the power and quality of its music, it was the first vocal work to be designed from the start to be singable in either German or English, and the first work to be published with a bilingual text. Beyond this, it was clearly his intention that The Creation be sung in the language of its audience; he approved translations in French and Swedish during his lifetime. [listen]

The Creation had its first performances in 1798 and stunned everyone who heard it. It has never been out of the repertoire and remains one of the great choral monuments of western art. At 66 Haydn was writing the best music of his life and he seemed unstoppable. The Mass for Maria Hermenegild's name day in 1798 was one of his best-known, the Mass in D minor which later acquired the nickname of the "Nelson" Mass. [listen] In 1799 the new Mass had a very different style: lyrical and gentle rather than driving and anguished. Known as the Theresienmesse - Theresa Mass - its nickname comes from a later occasion in which the soprano solos were sung by the Empress Maria Theresa. [listen]

But in 1799 Haydn started to complain that he was tired physically and mentally. There was no new Mass in 1800 but he wasn't resting. In that year he was in the midst of writing his other large-scale late oratorio, The Seasons, and this had its first performances in 1801. [listen]

The Seasons is undoubtedly a marvellous work but it's never had the universal appeal of The Creation. But even now Haydn still had music in him to bring to life. The new Mass for 1801 is now called the Schöpfungmesse or "Creation Mass", because part of it quotes a section of The Creation which even by that time was well-known and universally popular. [listen]

Then in 1802, the year he turned 70, Haydn composed his last Mass and his last major work, the Harmoniemesse. Harmonie is a German word which describes a wind band, and the Harmonie Mass is so-called because of the prominent writing for the winds. It cost Haydn an enormous amount of effort, and it took from January to August of 1802 to complete, just in time for the September performance. The work itself, though, is dazzling and masterful, with no sign at all of the effort it cost the composer. [listen]

And in addition to these six Masses and the two oratorios Haydn wrote even more choral music in this period: the choral version of the The Seven Last Words in 1796, and the second Te Deum setting around 1800 [listen] Then there were the 13 partsongs written .between 1796-99. And then there were the nearly 400 arrangements of British folksongs undertaken for George Thomson in Edinburgh, the last of which was written about 1804.

In 1800 Haydn's wife Anna Maria died. They'd continued to live together all these years despite their loveless marriage. He maintained his correspondence with women who were important to him and whom he had loved. Over his last few years he received a steady stream of visitors and well-wishers, and awards and honours came from all over Europe.

Haydn's last public performance was in December 1803, when he directed a performance of The Seven Last Words. Both his brothers predeceased him: Johann died in 1805, and Michael in 1806. His last public appearance of any kind was when he attended a performance of The Creation in 1808 to mark his 76th birthday. During the French bombardment of Vienna in May 1809 his physical frailty worsened; Napoleon ordered a guard of honour be placed at his house.

The house in Vienna (now a museum) where Haydn spent his final years

Joseph Haydn died in the early hours of 31 May, 1809; he was 77. A simple funeral was held the following afternoon, which was all that was possible due to the war. A more formal memorial service was held the following month, accompanied by Mozart's Requiem. His remains are now buried in the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt.

The Bergkirche in Eisenstadt, where Haydn's late Masses were premiered, and where the composer was buried.

An article like this is scarcely enough to give anything more than the most perfunctory outline of Haydn's life; the man's importance to western music can't be overstated. He was born in the late Baroque when the concert symphony and the string quartet weren't invented. At his death he had defined both forms to such an extent that the structures he developed are still the standard. His contribution to choral music - both liturgical and concert works - is also unique. And yet all these works are but the tip of the iceberg; his work list in Grove runs to no less than 60 close-typed pages. He is, simply, astonishing.

This article is based on a series of three Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2015.

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Feb 16, 2022

The court system was a major drag on the arts in many ways. Adam Liszt, who played cello for the Haydns could not make a sufficient income to start a family so he went back to Sopron to become an estate manager, and teach his only son, Franz. The sort of commodities he taught his son demonstrate that he was a very competent peformer. Possibly this was the motivation behind his son's efforts to democratise serious music.

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