Personalities | Joseph Haydn | Classical Era | Classical
(Fränts Yo’-sef Hi’-dan) 1732–1809
Joseph Haydn was the most celebrated musician of the late-eighteenth century and the first of the great triumvirate (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) of Viennese classical composers. A tireless explorer and innovator, he did more than anyone to develop the dramatic potential of the sonata style.
When he composed his cheerful F major Missa brevis in 1749, the Baroque was being eclipsed by the newly fashionable galant manner. By the time of his last great work, the Harmoniemesse (‘Wind-Band Mass’) of 1802, European music stood on the threshold of Romanticism.
Haydn’s characteristic juxtaposition of serious and comic, learned and popular, was often misunderstood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when he was patronizingly dubbed ‘Papa Haydn’. Today he is revered for his mastery of wit and irony, his inspired play with the listener’s expectations, and the sheer speed and subtlety of his musical thought. Less appreciated, though, are the depth and moral seriousness of much of his music: the elevated slow introductions to the London symphonies, for instance, or the profound spirituality of movements in the late Masses and string quartets.
The Early Years
Franz Joseph Haydn was born in the Austrian village of Rohrau, south-east of Vienna, on 31 March 1732. His parents, Mathias and Anna, were both musical, and Anna would often sing in the evenings accompanied by her husband on the harp. In time the pair would be joined by Joseph, who by the age of five was showing unusual talent as a singer. His younger brothers Johann Michael (1737–1806) and Johann Evangelist (1743–1805) were also musically gifted, and would likewise become professional musicians.
By 1738 young ‘Sepperl’, as he was always called, was receiving music lessons, and a year or two later he won a place at the elite choir school of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where he was taught singing, the harpsichord and the violin, learnt basic musical theory and cut his teeth as a composer. Various anecdotes suggest that Haydn had a mischievous sense of humour and it was one of his typical pranks – cutting off the pigtail of the boy in front of him in the choir stalls – that caused his dismissal from St Stephen’s in 1749. So on a damp November evening, the 17-year-old Haydn found himself on the streets of Vienna, ‘with three mean shirts and a worn coat’.
Freelance in Vienna
By Haydn’s own admission, his first years as a freelance musician in the imperial capital were hard. He was forced ‘to eke out a wretched existence’ by teaching, composed ‘diligently, but not quite correctly’ and supplemented his paltry income by playing in serenade parties. As luck had it, though, he found himself living in the attic of the same house as the famous poet Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), who introduced him to the old Italian opera composer Nicola Antonio Porpora (1686–1768). Through Porpora, Haydn claimed to have learnt ‘the true fundamentals of composition’;...
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