Franz Joseph Haydn


Last updated: November 1, 2021

Franz Joseph Haydn


Franz Joseph Haydn was an Austrian composer. During his lifetime, he achieved renown across Europe, and he continues to be venerated today for his contributions to Western art music. His vast compositional catalogue encompasses works of every significant musical genre of the 18th century. He is often regarded as the “father” of the symphony and the string quartet (he wrote 104 and 68 of these, respectively), for having elevated the quality and importance of these forms of music alongside the development of public concert life. Stylistically, Haydn composed with the 18th century principle in mind that music’s main purpose was to move the listener. Consequently, his works are characterized by an emphasis on depth of feeling (through memorable melodies) and wit (via a sense of play on expectations of aspects of form and musical rhetoric), to be appealing to amateurs and connoisseurs alike.

Born in Rohrau, Lower Austria on March 31, 1732, Haydn, from a young age, studied harpsichord, violin, and singing, in Hainburg. He later became a choir boy at the Stephansdom in Vienna. Following his education, Haydn’s career—and the types of compositions he wrote—was shaped extensively by the circumstances of his employment, which ranged from being a court composer and musician to an artist of relative independence earning income on commissions and the publication of his works. He began as a freelance musician, teacher, and composer, eventually landing his first appointment as director of music for Count Morzin in 1757. In 1761, the wealthy and influential Esterházy family of Hungarian nobility employed Haydn as their Vice Kapellmeister, in charge of all the instrumental, secular, and stage music of their court. When he was elevated to the position of Kapellmeister five years later, he became responsible for church music as well. At this time, prince Nicolaus established his summer palace, Eszterháza, where, over the following two decades, opera became the dominant musical activity and Haydn increasingly spent time there to oversee its production.

In 1779, Haydn entered into a new contract with his employer that allowed him to continue writing instrumental music and earn income from its publication and performance in Vienna and abroad. Within a few years, Haydn’s music became genuinely popular, including in France and England, from where he received several prestigious commissions for symphonies from Count d’Ogny in Paris (1785–1786) and from concert impresario Johann Peter Salomon in London (1791–1795).

Upon returning to Vienna from London in 1795, Haydn shifted almost entirely to composing sacred vocal music: masses for the Esterházy court, and oratorios, such as The Creation, for the city’s Gesellschaft der Associirten. From 1799, his musical activities gradually waned due to physical and mental decline; his last completed work, the Harmoniemesse, was given in September 1802, and his final public appearance, conducting Seven Last Words, was in December 1803. He spent his remaining years at home in Gumpendorf, receiving friends and continuing to mentor younger musicians (Beethoven among them). Haydn died, highly decorated with honours, in Vienna on May 31, 1809.


By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley

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