Composer in Focus – Franz Joseph Haydn


Name: Franz Joseph Haydn
Dates: 1732-1809
Country of Birth: Austria
Musical Era: Classical

Born to working class parents, Haydn was just six years old when his talent for music was recognised and it was at that age that he left his parents home, never to live with them again.  While he received very little in the way of musical education, his vocal ability led him to be admitted to the choir school at St Stephens Cathedral in Vienna.  It was there that the young musician began to gain an understanding of what music really was and he was one of the young stars of the city’s famous choir, that was until his middle teens and the onset of puberty.  The Empress herself, Maria Theresa, noted young Haydn’s voice was rather unappealing (more of a ‘crow’ apparently) and before too long he found himself on the street.  It didn’t help that he had given one of his fellow choristers a haircut (clipping off the boy’s pigtail); the ‘attack’ was reason enough for Haydn to be dismissed.  Music had become his passion by now and the young man sought out ways in which to exact his need to make music, finding himself jobs as a street musician, teacher and – eventually – as valet to a prominent Italian composer.  It was during this period in the employ of Nicola Porpora that Haydn gained the theoretical knowledge of music he so wanted to learn, taking lessons in counterpoint and harmony from his master. He had studied scores whilst at St Stephens and learned much, but this vital new understanding of the mechanics of music allowed Haydn to spread his wings and become the musician and composer he longed to be.  Court duties followed, then much needed patronage.  As Kappelmeister to one Count Morzin, young Haydn truly cut his teeth; it was a role that would lead him to serve under the wealthy Esterházy family, first as Vice-Kappelmeister and then overseeing every aspect of the family’s musical needs.  From managing the court orchestra, performing for visitors, teaching members of the family and producing concerts, Haydn’s time was full.  It allowed him, though, to compose, albeit for the family – whether it be works for public performance in court, or pieces for the Prince to perform himself.  This musical isolation didn’t really suit the composer, but his name was becoming recognised far outside of the walls of the palaces he worked in.  An eventual renegotiation of his working terms, saw Haydn able to composer for others, and the commissions came flooding in from far and wide; notably France and Spain.

With his star rising, the ambitious Haydn dreamed of a future away from the court and with the death of the Prince, he found just that.  The new Prince had less of a need for musicians and so Haydn was allowed to travel.   An invitation to visit London was too good to ignore, so he found himself going to England.  En route he encountered a young Ludwig van Beethoven in Bonn, Germany.  The pair would meet again, indeed Beethoven would become a student of Haydn’s in the years that followed.  In London Haydn was already a bit of a star and his music

Read more about Haydn classicfm.com / Subscribe to Classical Bristol

Key works… The Creation, Symphony No 104 ‘London’, Symphony No 101 ‘Clock’, The Seven Last Words of Christ

Did you know?  Haydn almost underwent a sensitive operation as a young teenager to preserve his angelic treble voice, but his voice broke before it could take place…

Haydn in Bristol
Sun 22 Jan, 6.30pm /
Really Classical – ‘Symphony No 104’ (St George’s Bristol)

Tues 28 Feb, 1.05pm /
Halcyon Quartet – ‘String Quartet Op 77 No 2’ (The Lantern)