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Papa Haydn – Father of the Symphony, the Sonata, and the String Quartet

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

"Father of the noble art of music and favorite of the Muses"

– Franz Niemetschek, philosopher, teacher and music critic (July 24, 1766 – March 19, 1849) in his dedication to Franz Joseph Haydn inscribed his 1798 biography of Mozart

Franz Joseph Haydn (March 31, 1732 – May 31, 1809) has been affectionately called “Papa” Haydn by many people since he lived nearly more than two centuries ago, including musicians who worked with him at the Esterhazy Court and his fellow composers, including W. A. Mozart and as well as those who lived generations later. He is also known as the "Father of the Symphony," "Father of the Sonata," and "Father of the String Quartet." How did one composer earn all of this esteem? In this post, we will learn a little about his life and legacy.


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Haydn in c. 1770, Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted c. 1791–92
Haydn in c. 1770, Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted c. 1791–92

Haydn's Early Life

Haydn's Birthplace and Early Home
Haydn's Birthplace and Early Home

Franz Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Austria a small village. He was called by his second name "Joseph" rather than his first. His father, Mathias Haydn was a wheelwright and the village mayor, and his mother, Maria, née Koller, had worked as a cook for Count Harrach, the local aristocrat. Neither of his parents was a classically trained musician, but Mathias played folk harp and the family sang together and with neighbors. Haydn and his two brothers Johann Michael and Johann Evangelist became professional musicians. Like his older brother Joseph Michael (Sept. 4, 1737 – Aug. 10, 1806) was a Classical composer, composing more than 40 symphonies and during their lifetimes Michael was consider a better sacred music composer than his brother. [Listen to one of Michael's church compositions, Requiem in C minor (1771), in the video below. The video is cued to begin with the "Dies Irae."] Youngest brother, Johann Evangelist, known to the family as Hansi, (Dec. 3, 1743 – May 10, 1805), was a professional tenor vocalist.

St. Stephen's, Jakob Alt, Watercolor, 1847
St. Stephen's, Jakob Alt, Watercolor, 1847

At the age of six, Joseph's prodigious talent was recognized and by the age of eight, he was recruited to sing in St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Both of his brothers followed him to join the choir as well. While in Vienna, he studied violin and keyboard. After he left the choir, he continued his musical studied, focusing on counterpoint and harmony (music theory) and supported himself by teaching music lessons. Also while in Vienna, Haydn worked as an assistant to renowned singer, music teacher, and Baroque Neapolitan composer, Nicola Antonio Porpora (Aug. 17, 1686 – March 3, 1768), who was working in Vienna at the time, in exchange for lessons. Haydn credited his ability to support himself while having the time to study as essential to his success, he wrote:

Many geniuses are ruined by this miserable [need to earn their] daily bread, because they lack time to study. This could well have happened to me; I would never have achieved what little I have done, had I not carried on with my zeal for composition during the night. I composed diligently, but not quite correctly, until I finally had the good fortune to learn the true fundamentals of composition from the famous Porpora.

At the Esterházy Court

Esterházy Castle,Wikipedia
Esterházy Castle,Wikipedia

In 1761, at the age of only 29, Haydn became a Kapellmeister (in English: court musician) for the Esterházy family, the wealthiest and most influential among the Hungarian nobility. He started as a vice-Kapellmeister under aging Kapellmeister and Baroque composer Gregor Joseph Werner (Jan. 28, 1693 – March , 1766). Haydn took on most of the musical responsibilities right away but did not become full Kapellmeister after Wener's death out of respect for the elder musician. He remained in service to the Esterházys for almost 30 years, where Haydn worked in the countryside at Eisenstadt away from the influences of other composers, and as he put it, was "forced to become original."

Haydn directing a performance of his opera L'incontro improvviso in the Esterházy theatre in 1775. The Bridgeman Art Library
Haydn directing a performance of his opera L'incontro improvviso in the Esterházy theatre in 1775. The Bridgeman Art Library

While at the court, Haydn was in charge of all instrumental music, secular vocal music, and stage music as well. As Kapellmeister, he had had full authority over the musicians and was close to many of them personally as well, often acting as godfather to their children. Haydn first earned the affectionate title of "Papa Haydn" as he often interceded in relations between the musicians who worked under him and the Prince Esterházy when they found themselves in trouble. Among the musicians with occasional behavioral indiscretions was younger brother Hansi, for whom Haydn had gotten a job at court. To those under him, Haydn also offered fatherly advice and his musical ability and knowledge was held in high esteem by them. As an authority figure, musicians considered him a benevolent ally. His other duties while at the court included overseeing the musical archives; being responsible for instrument purchase, upkeep and repair; offering singing instruction; performing on various instruments; and last but not least, composing music. While at the court, he became acquainted with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Jan. 27, 1756 – Dec. 5, 1791). Although Mozart had completed most of his musical education under his biological father the notoriously demanding , Leopold (Nov. 14, 1719 – May 28, 1787), Haydn still became a mentor and father-figure to him, offering the still young composer his musical advice and constructive criticism, as well as aiding him with his counterpoint.

Haydn in London

Haydn, Thomas Hardy, 1791
Haydn, Thomas Hardy, 1791

After nearly 30 years with the Esterházy court, Haydn took leave from the court. In 1790, after the death of Haydn's patron, a new Prince Esterhazy came to power, one who had no interest in music and cut Haydn’s salary. At this time, German-born, London-based violinist, conductor, composer, and concert promoter, Johann Peter Salomon (Baptized: Feb. 20, 1745 – Nov. 28, 1815) suggested that Haydn travel to England to work because Salomon would be able to organize concerts that would be financially profitable for both of them. Haydn's friend Mozart noted that Haydn did not speak a word of English, Haydn replied:

My language is understood throughout the world!

referring, of course, to his music.

Haydn ended up traveling to working in England twice. The first time in 1790 and 1791 and then again 1794 – 1795. While in London, Haydn composed his symphonies No. 93 to 98 during his first visit and No. 99 – 104 were composed in Vienna and London for his second. [No. 94 in G major, the second of the London symphonies known colloquially as the "Surprise Symphony," is below. The video is set to begin with the very recognizable theme from the second movement, Andante. ] Haydn was quite famous in London. However, he did not let fame "go to his head" and remained committed to his work, writing about London:

My arrival caused a great sensation … I went the rounds of all the newspapers for three successive days. Everyone wants to know me … If I wanted, I could dine out every day; but first I must consider my health, and second my work. Except for the nobility, I admit no callers until 2 o’clock.

A review from one his concerts at the time by his contemporary, musician, music historian, and author of the most complete music history book at the time, the four-volume A General History of Music, Charles Burney (April 7, 1726 – April 12, 1814) described Haydn's concerts:

Haydn himself presided at the piano-forte; and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever, to my knowledge, been caused by instrumental music in England. All the slow middle movements were encored; which never happened before, I believe, in any country.

Mozart died during Haydn's London journeys. The two composers were very close and even performed in a string quartet together along with two other composers, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (Nov. 2, 1739 – Oct. 24,1799) and Johann Baptist Wanhal (May 12, 1739 – Aug. 20,1813). Haydn was devastated when he learned of his protégé's death and wrote that Mozart called him "Papa." Haydn wrote about Mozart's death:

I was for some time quite beside myself over his death. I cannot believe that Providence should so quickly have called an irreplaceable man into the next world. Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.

Haydn taught Mozart's son free of charge when he was old enough to study.

In Vienna After London and Beethoven's Teacher

Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795. another Prince Esterházy was in charge, Nikolaus II, and the prince wished that the Esterházy musical tradition be revived and that Haydn should return to serve as Kapellmeister. Haydn agreed and took the position on a part-time basis, spending the summers He spent his summers with the Esterházys in Eisenstadt and composed six Masses for them.

Haydn's House in Vienna, Wikipedia
Haydn's House in Vienna, Wikipedia

In July 1792, Haydn and Salomon's stopped in Salomon's hometown of Bonn, Germany, while returning from the first London trip. Bonn was also famous for being the hometown of Ludwig van Beethoven (Dec. 17, 1770, baptized – March 26, 1827). Beethoven met with Haydn and showed his scores for the Cantatas on the Death of Emperor Joseph II (WoO 87) and the Elevation of Emperor Leopold II (WoO O88). The works so impressed Haydn that he told Beethoven if he could come to Vienna, he would tutor him. Beethoven was a less-than-ideal student and did not give authority figures respect. (This was most likely due to his very abusive biological father.)

Haydn sought to be an advocate for the young composer, writing to Beethoven's patron the Reverend Archbishop and Elector back in Bonn that he should increased his stipend since Beethoven was doing such excellent work and that Beethoven would one day be one of the "greatest musical artists in Europe" and going on to say that he'll be proud to call himself Beethoven's teacher. Additionally, Beethoven took financial advantage of Haydn, borrowing money from him under false pretenses and turned in musical assignments using music that he had previously composed claiming it was new. When Haydn found out Beethoven had been deceiving him, he ceased the lessons. Despite this, Beethoven had both fondness and respect for Haydn, later dedicating his piano sonatas Op. 2 to him, and, as the good farther-figure Haydn was, forgave Beethoven.

Due to his reputation earned from his times in London, Haydn had finally begun famous on the continent as well. He became highly sought after as a music teacher and composer and attracting public attention. It was during this time he composed two of his greatest large scale works, the oratorios The Creation (1796 – 1798) and The Seasons (1801). Both of these works were lauded at the time and are are considered some of the greatest music composed during of the Classical period. [Listen to The Heavens Are Telling from The Creation in the video below.]

Declining Health and Retirement

1808 Performance of The Creation in Honor of Haydn painting, Balthasar Wigand
1808 Performance of The Creation in Honor of Haydn, Balthasar Wigand

By the end of 1803, Haydn's health had declined, and he could no longer compose. Although his physical health was poor, he continued to have musical ideas and the inability to get them unto paper caused him distress. Music was a part of his being and without the ability to express that music, he felt like he had lost himself. As he said to German painter, engraver, and writer of one of the two earliest Haydn biographies, Albert Christoph Dies (1755 – Dec. 28, 1822) in 1806:

I must have something to