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Franz Joseph Haydn - Composer

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The ghost of Joseph Haydn missing his skull.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was an Austrian composer whose long career stretched from the age of Bach and Handel to that of Beethoven and Schubert. He did not come from a musical family such as the Bachs and Mozarts. His parents were not well-to-do, like those of Carl Ditters Von Dittersdorf. He shared with two of his brothers a remarkable ear, but the Haydn family produced no musicians in any generation except Joseph Haydn's. It's reasonable to wonder why he became one of the most famous composers in the world, with so little going for him. The explanation is that he had a fortuitous mixture of personal qualities:

  1. Musical talent. Of the five Haydn siblings who survived to adulthood, three made music their life's work. All three Haydn brothers sang as choirboys in Vienna. Two of the three wrote music for the rest of their working lives. A good ear is the ingredient without which one cannot hope to become a successful musician. The Haydn brothers had it. Joseph benefitted from the good luck of being hired to compose music for the Esterhazy family. Nobles from much of Europe came to hear this music, and spread the word about this talented composer and conductor.

  2. The sort of curiosity about how the world worked that you might expect from the son of a wheelwright. Haydn could not be satisfied with a piece until he had brought out its full potential. Haydn used sonata form to give a general structure to his music, but within that framework he was so inventive that the listener never really knows what is coming next in a Haydn piece. Even on repeat listening, one is apt to hear things that one had not heard in previous hearings.

  3. A strong religious faith that erred on the side of compassion and deep caring for other people's well-being. This expressed itself in music that aimed to help lift the spirits of people who were feeling down. Haydn's concern for other people made him the perfect person to give feedback to, as large numbers of people did. He wanted to know how his music was being received, and he wasn't all that concerned about what class his listeners belonged to. He was no pushover, though. When one of the Esterhazy princes tried to tell him how to run his rehearsals, he told the man off, saying that the rehearsal was Haydn's domain. Haydn was given the name 'Papa' as a term of endearment. In numerous ways he endeared himself to his musicians, in the process getting them to give the best that they had in them.

  4. A work ethic that made it possible for Haydn to write an astonishingly large body of work. That it was of exceptional quality only made more people want him to write for them. Looking back, one could wish that his work hadn't been in such demand, as many publishers issued pieces claiming to be by Haydn, but which were not.

  5. Wit. Haydn's love of fun expressed itself in his daily life as well as his music. For instance, it was reported that, at an evening party, Mozart bet a case of champagne that Haydn couldn't sight-read something that Mozart had composed that afternoon. Haydn began to play it on the harpsichord but stopped after a few bars. The work required him to simultaneously strike notes at two ends of the keyboard and a note in the very centre. 'Nobody can play this with only two hands,' Haydn objected. 'I can,' Mozart said, sitting down and playing it. When he reached the section that had thrown Haydn, Mozart struck the central note with his nose. Haydn made light of it, saying: 'With a nose like yours, it becomes easier.'1


As one approaches the work of Joseph Haydn, it can seem daunting that there is so much of it. This Entry will try to single out some especially worthwhile pieces, and explain their significance for the music lover. Here are some examples of genres in which Haydn excelled.

Haydn wrote many kinds of instrumental music. His 70 authenticated string quartets are important to people who enjoy chamber music. There are some who think of him as the father of the string quartet, because he elevated that musical form over a period of decades. It is said that Beethoven delayed publication of his string quartets because Haydn's were still wildly popular. Haydn is also referred to as the father of the symphony, to which he devoted nearly 40 years of his life. Although he did not invent the symphony, his work was so influential that many other composers flattered him by adopting his approach. His early symphonies show 'direct influence of CPE [Bach]'. CPE Bach was the son of Johann Sebastian Bach. Haydn's middle symphonies influenced contemporaries such as Mozart and Vanhal. As for his late symphonies, those were written for London, which he visited twice in the early 1790s. There he presented the 12 so-called 'Salomon Symphonies', after the impresario who arranged the trips. These pieces have stayed in the orchestral repertoire, and are currently (2023) played regularly by symphony orchestras everywhere. Of his 104 symphonies, these are the best-known. Beethoven is known to have studied Haydn's symphonies assiduously, using them as a jumping-off point for his own symphonies.

For decades Haydn worked at Eisenstadt, the palace owned by the Esterhazy family. It was geographically isolated. Haydn claimed that isolation helped him by cutting down on distractions and letting him be original, but it also made him lonely at times. He married Maria Anna Theresia Keller (1729-1800) in 1760, but soon found that his wife didn't like music, and used his scores to line pastry dishes. She took lovers. By 1770 he and his wife were completely estranged. In the late 1770s he took a mistress, Luigia Polzelli, who had been hired to sing in operatic productions. Haydn wrote special arias for her when she couldn't sing other composers' pieces. In this way Haydn made sure that she stayed on the payroll. Teresa Berganza and Nuria Rial have recorded some of the arias that Haydn wrote for her. In addition, Haydn cast her as Silvia in his opera 'L'isola disabitata'. This is mentioned because the personal qualities that made Haydn a diligent and talented musician also drove him to want human warmth and appreciation. Haydn's misery at his failed marriage came through in his music. Musicologists call this his 'Sturm und Drang' period2. The so-called 'Farewell Symphony', for instance, starts with a sense of anguish bordering on despair. At the end of the symphony, the musicians leave one by one, a message to Prince Esterhazy that he had kept them from their families too long. Haydn, who had no close family, felt their pain.

Haydn was a close friend of Mozart, whom he regarded as his greatest contemporary. Once it became clear to him that Mozart was the era's supreme composer of operas, Haydn stopped writing in that genre. By the same token, Mozart cut back on his production of symphonies, apparently out of deference to Haydn.

Haydn slipped into depression when news of Mozart's death reached him in London in 1792. At this time, Haydn was in London at the behest of Johann Peter Salomon. Haydn happened to catch a performance of Handel's 'Messiah'. It impressed him so much, he declared: 'Handel is the master of us all.' On returning to Vienna, Haydn decided to compose an oratorio3 of his own. Baron Gottfried Von Swieten procured a libretto that had been offered to Handel, based on the book of Genesis. He translated it into German. The resulting piece, known as 'Die Schopfung' ('The Creation') debuted in 1798 and brought new life to a musical form that had lost momentum since Handel's death in 1759. It helped to establish Haydn as 'Handel's successor in the field of oratorio'. This was followed in 1801 by 'The Seasons', which used a libretto based on Englishman James Thomson's long poem of the same name. Von Swieten prepared the libretto for this work as well. In the field of choral music, Haydn's late masses are also staples of the choral repertoire. Haydn did not neglect small-scale vocal works, writing songs in a number of different languages. In his old age, with the help of students, he set more than 500 folk songs for keyboard or small ensemble.

Also included in Haydn's late work are: dozens of piano trios, a trumpet concerto, string quartets, his final opera ('L'Anima del Filosofo'), numerous songs, and piano sonatas. In 1797, Haydn wrote what is arguably his most famous song: 'Gott Erhalte Franz Den Kaiser' as a hymn dedicated to the Emperor. National anthems as we know them today were rare then. He composed this in response to France's 'Marseillaise', and chose the Emperor's birthday as the time for presenting it. The tune is in use as a national anthem - Germany is using it now, after changing the lyrics.

Some time around 1803, Haydn became too feeble to work. He retired to a house in Gumpendorf, a suburb of Vienna, where he lived quietly with his servants and some pupils. Although he did arrangements of Scottish folk songs, he was unable to produce anything that demanded more effort. In 1809, when Napoleon's troops were invading Gumpendorf, Haydn got out of his sickbed to play the Austrian National Anthem as an act of defiance against Napoleon. Four days later, Haydn was dead, apparently of shock from the heavy shelling. But even in death he was to find no peace, for grave robbers stole the skull from his crypt. It was not to be relocated and returned to the rest of his remains until 1954.

Posterity owes Haydn quite a bit. His tonal experimentation in the overture to 'The Creation' anticipates Richard Wagner. The high level of craftsmanship in Haydn's symphonies served Beethoven well in his symphonies. Aficionados of chamber music have much to celebrate, as Haydn continued the development of the string quartet and piano trio from where Mozart left off, giving Beethoven and his successors a solid foundation on which to build.

Notes on Some of the Best-known Haydn Pieces


Symphony Number 45 - The 'Farewell symphony'. This symphony got its name because Haydn is said to have used it to convince his patron, Prince Nicolas Esterhazy, to end his extended summer stay at his summer palace Esterhaza, which kept his musicians away from their families. In the Finale, the musicians would stop playing one by one, snuff out their candles, and walk off stage. By the end, only Haydn and his concertmaster were left on the stage. Apparently, Esterhazy got the hint, and allowed the musicians to return to Vienna the next day!

Symphony Number 94 - The 'Surprise Symphony'. This is perhaps the best-known of Haydn's symphonies. It has even been used to sell men's underwear. The title 'Surprise' comes from a sudden loud timpani stroke in the piece's second movement. The story went around that Haydn wanted to wake up audience members who had fallen asleep. However, Haydn denied that the loud chord had been written for that purpose. 'Rather it was my wish to surprise the public with something new, so as not to be outdone by my pupil Ignaz Pleyel, who was engaged in London for a concert series just before mine. My new symphony was well received, but enthusiasm reached its highest point with the unexpected timpani stroke. Even Pleyel complimented me on the idea.'

Other recommended symphonies are: #22 'The Philosopher', #31 'Hornsignal, #48 'Maria Theresia' #82 'The Bear', #83 'The Hen', #101 'The Clock' and #103 'Drumroll'.

Masses and Other Liturgical Pieces

Haydn's six late masses reflected his arrangement with the Esterhazy family after he retired from day today involvement with the Eisenstadt musical establishment. He was technically still in charge, so he agreed to write one mass each year to celebrate the name day (12 September) of Princess Maria Hermenegild, the wife of Prince Nikolaus II and a friend of the composer.

  • 'Missa Sancti Bernardi von Offida', also known as the 'Heiligmesse' (1796)
  • Missa in tempore belli' ('Mass in Time of War'), also known as the 'Paukenmesse' ('Kettledrum Mass') (1796)
  • 'Missa in Angustiis' ('Mass in Troubled Times'), also known as the 'Nelson Mass' (1798)
  • 'Theresienmesse' (named for Maria Theresa of the Two Sicilies) (1799)
  • 'Schöpfungsmesse' ('Creation Mass') (1801)
  • 'Harmoniemesse' ('Wind-band Mass') (1802)
The popular title of the 'Mass in Time of War' reflects the fact that Napoleon's armies were threatening Austria's borders. The final movements feature sudden brass fanfares as if an army were coming. The concluding 'Dona Nobis Pacem' ('Give Us Peace') is heartfelt. The 'Lord Nelson Mass' 'starts in a martial manner, and rarely lets up in intensity'. Haydn is said to have been so worked up about the threats to his country that he composed the piece in a rare burst of sustained inspiration. The 'Creation Mass' used a motif from the oratorio 'The Creation' and builds on it thematically. The 'Harmoniemesse', Haydn's last large-scale effort, reflected his desire to finally write a proper piece for wind instruments. He lamented that he had only learned how to write for wind instruments late in life, and wanted to finally show that he had mastered the process. He was so exhausted from this that he confined himself to small-scale works after this. 'Te Deum in C' was a setting of the Latin Te Deum text.

Chamber Music

Recommended string quartets are: Opus 64 #5 'The Lark', Opus 76 #2 'Quinten' and Opus 76 #3 'Emperor'.

Haydn's late piano sonatas and piano trios are generally considered to be his best. Gilbert Kalish and Glenn Gould have made recordings of the former, as have many other notable pianists. The Beaux Arts Trio have done likewise with the latter, and other ensembles have recorded them in recent years.


Haydn wrote many concerti for instruments such as violin and harpsichord, but only 11 survive as there was a devastating fire at Eisenstadt in the early 1770s. Of his nine cello concerti, only two survived, and one of them wasn't rediscovered until the late 20th Century. Many other concerti have likewise been lost. The trumpet concerto is one of Haydn's most popular pieces. It was written for virtuoso Anton Weidinger, who had developed a keyed trumpet. Before this, the trumpet was valveless. Pitches were controlled by altering the vibration of the lips. Most of the notes that could be played were in the higher registers. Weidinger's invention could play mid range and low range notes, so Haydn was able to write melodies in these ranges.

Further Reading

An h2g2 Post article giving reasons to consider Haydn if you are about to go to a desert island can be found here: Franz Joseph Haydn - My Composer for a Desert Island. The author not only recommends some of the pieces featured in this Entry, but explains in some detail why they are good choices.

1Nicolas Slonimsky, Book of Musical Anecdotes, 1948.2'Sturm und Drang' ('storm and stress') was a literary and artistic movement in the German-speaking world in the late 18th Century characterised by the expression of strong, turbulent emotions.3A lengthy choral work usually of a religious nature consisting chiefly of recitatives, arias, and choruses without action or scenery.

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