Happy Birthday, Mr Haydn

Portrait of Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, known by some as the father of the symphony, inventor of the string quartet, was born on 31 March 1732 and 290 years later, we celebrate the life and times of one of the world’s great composers.

Haydn died in 1809, in the midst of Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna. A few weeks before his passing, Haydn was most touched that Napoleon put guards around his house and the one of those guards sung to him from his oratorio “The Creation”.

Landscape near Rohrau

Many of Haydn’s 108 Symphonies were also given nicknames 5,6,7 – Le matin, Le Midi, Le Soir, No. 38 the Echo, No. 47 The Palindrome. No. 94 the Famous Surprise Symphony known for its ‘jokes’. There are 12 London symphonies completed on his two successful tours and 6 Paris symphonies.

Birthplace in Rohrau

In 1732, Bach was working on the B minor Mass, and also born that year were Abbas III, Shah of Persia, Carl Gotthard Langhans, German architect, Richard Arkwright, English inventor and George Washington who would become the first President of the USA. 

In 1732, Russia signed a treaty with Persia stating it would no longer establish claims on Persian Territories and another, The Treaty of the Three Black Eagles or the Treaty of Berlin, a secret treaty between the Austrian Empire, the Russian Empire and Prussia against the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.  

Spain completed the conquest of the Algerian cities of Oran and Mers El Kébir in the Oran Province, after a 17-day siege.  

Haydn was born in uncertain times and died in uncertain times.

At the age of 8 in 1740, Haydn’s musical ability was brought to the attention of Georg von Reutter, joining the choir school of St Stephen’s Cathedral there in 1740. Haydn arrived in 1740 in Vienna where the ailing, impoverished and almost forgotten Vivaldi was soon to die.  St Stephen’s Cathedral musical director, Reutter, was not the kindest of men and worked Haydn and his young colleagues hard, on sometimes little or no food. Haydn had no formal training whist at St Stephen’s but he picked up a lot whilst there just by listening and watching and gained a musical education simply by serving as a professional musician at St Stephen’s. 

Lean times followed until Haydn secured some work, briefly as valet-accompanist to the composer Nicola Porpora (singing teacher of the famous castrato Farinelli). Haydn was later to recall learning “the true fundamentals of composition” during his time with Porpora. In this period of moving onward and upward it is probably fair to say that Haydn was self-taught by learning on the job at St Stephen’s, gaining much knowledge whilst working as accompanist to Porpora, learning the compositions of CPE Bach and working through the counterpoint exercises in the text Gradus ad Parnassum by Johann Joseph Fux. As his knowledge and skills as a composer increased so did the employment he sought and the employment he was offered, until in 1761 (a mere three hundred years before I was born) Haydn was appointed  Vice-Kapellmeister for the Esterhazy Family, a family which he would work for, almost all his life. In 1766, on the death of Gregor Werner, Haydn was instated as Kapellmeister responsible for all of the music in the Esterhazy estate.

Esterhazy Castle

These were prolific years for Haydn as attested in his large catalogue of work.

Haydn’s works were catalogued by Anthony van Hoboken in his Hoboken catalogue, Hoboken worked on this listing of Haydn’s works, first in card catalogue format in 1934 up until the publication of the third book volume in 1978. Unlike most other catalogues which sort works chronologically – for example, Mozart K1 is the earliest and K626 is the last great unfinished D minor Mass – the Hoboken catalogue sorts by musical genre. All the masses are Hob 22 then numbered 1-14, Symphonies are Hob 1 then 1 – 108 ( there are 104 symphonies but Hoboken includes 4 other works in this selection) and so on, through all of his different genres of works.

Oxford University

In 1791 Haydn was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Haydn’s Symphony No. 92 is called the Oxford. Haydn performed this work at his award ceremony, but this was not the work he presented to the university for his doctorial submission. A candidate for this doctorate was required to present a specimen of their skill in composition. The work he presented was the al rovescio (Palindrome) Minuet from his 1772 Symphony No 47. The Nickname The Oxford has been perhaps wrongly attributed to the symphony No. 92.

Garden House in Eisenstadt                                                                      
Haydn’s house in Eisenstadt                                                                   

On Haydn’s return from his second trip to London in 1795. He learned of the passing of Prince Anton and the succession of Prince Nikolaus II. Nikolaus II was keen to reinstate court music to where he thought it should be and keen also to place Haydn back in charge of that music scene. Haydn was by this time a much more established public figure and agreed to only return to the Esterhazy’s in the summer months. Leaving the rest of the year for his own work. The summer months were none the less prolific times. By the early 1800s, Beethoven was very clearly moving way from classicism and towards romanticism, Napoleon was elected Emperor of France and the decade saw the births of other notable composers – in 1803 Hectore Berlioz, and in 1804 Mikhail Glinka and Johann Strauss I. In Vienna, Haydn’s powers were waning, physically, and composing became more of a struggle. Very little new work appeared at this time, works that had been complete pre-1800 received performances or were revised and completed for performance. This final period of Haydn’s life saw the production off his two great Oratorios – The Creation in 1798 and The Seasons in 1801. 

Haydn’s final years are spent in quiet retirement cared or by his faithful servants and in his final illness Haydn was protected by a benevolent Napoleon, who provided a guard for Haydn’s House.

House in which Haydn died, Haydngasse, Vienna

In 1809, the same year that welcomed the arrival of the, yet to be, great composer Felix Mendelssohn, Haydn passed. Hopefully his journey to the next life was accompanied by the singing of his guards.

You can explore Haydn’s musical masterpieces in our collections. Naxos has a vast collection of works by Haydn, and in the Music Library we have a great collection of scores and parts from a vast array of works by Haydn.

Pop into the Music Library or search our library catalogue and reserve items for pick up at your nearest reopened library. 

And search all the entries for Haydn on Naxos, our music streaming service.  

Or watch concerts and operas on Medici TV.

Calvary Church with Haydn’s tomb, Eisenstadt

The Illustrations in this article are from The Joseph Haydn Memorial Portfolio, published in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s birth, by the Haydn Festival Committee of the Official Tourist Office for Lower Austria, for the Haydn Birth-place Benefit Fund in Rohrau on the Leitha.
The twelve original drawings are by Igo Potsch, Austrian artist, lithographer, painter and poster artist as well as art teacher. Potsch was born in 1884 and died in 1943. Born in Graz, he was a student of the artist Heinrich August Schwach and Paul Schad-Rossa in Graz and studied under Victor Mader at the Institute of Graphic Arts and Research in Vienna where he taught from 1922 to 1928. 

Ignatz (Igo) Potsch
copyright: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

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