Haydn's family history offers no clues to the huge fame he would achieve during his lifetime as one of the master composers of the Classical era. Franz Joseph Haydn was born on 31st March 1732 into a family of wheelwrights in the Austrian village of Rohrau on the Hungarian border. His roots lay in Hungary, although there is reason to believe that the family had origins in Croatia, which accounts for the Slavonic element in his music.
Haydn's father, himself an amateur musician, encouraged his son's talents. By the age of eight, Franz Joseph had obtained a place in the choir school of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, where he served as one of the principal soloists and received tuition in harpsichord, violin and organ. At 18, and no longer much use as a choirboy, Haydn was dismissed and supported himself through teaching, playing the organ in church services and performing in orchestras and string quartets (he would later play occasionally with Mozart in a quartet). He began composing, taking early influence from the powerful 'Sturm and Drang' style of C.P.E. Bach's sonatas.
The turning point of his career came in 1761 when he was appointed to a position in the household of the Esterházys, one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Austria. As Kapellmeister, or music director (1776–90), all the young composer's music belonged to his employer and Haydn was not free to distribute copies. Happily, however, Prince Nikolaus, a lover of music, gave Haydn more than the usual respect reserved for court composers and, with the support of a discerning patron, an excellent orchestra and creative freedom, Haydn flourished: "I could, as head of an orchestra, make experiments, observe what created an impression, and what weakened it, thus improving...and running risks. I was set apart from the world...and so I had to become original."
Works from these early years include around 125 trios for viola, 'cello and baryton, a type of viol instrument now obsolete but played by the Prince at the time, and various early comic operas. His output of courtly dances, numbering nearly 400, was similarly prodigious and included the 12 Minuets. His early string quartets, including the 'Serenade', also provided attractive court entertainment. However, they display maturity in their freshness and deceptive simplicity as Haydn moved away from the stately Baroque and ornamented Rococo styles. This elevation of music from mere entertainment into more original forms is also manifest in his early symphonies, many of which are written in minor keys, including his 'Farewell' Symphony No.45 in F# minor. This allowed him to adopt a more serious character in line with German and Austrian trends.
In 1779 Haydn was granted a new contract which allowed him to compose works for other patrons and publish his work. With this newfound freedom, Haydn received commissions from further afield—he wrote a series of Parisian symphonies (1785–86) and was commissioned to write The Seven Last Words for Holy Week in Cadiz Cathedral.
Following the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790, and the succession of a decidedly unmusical new prince, Haydn was granted substantial leave for the first time. With the opportunity to visit the cities where his music was now highly respected, Haydn came to London on two occasions (1791–92 and 1794–95), conducting weekly concerts and premiering new works. His last 12 symphonies were all composed for this trip, including the 'Surprise', 'Military', 'Drumroll' and 'London' Symphony No.104, which was an instant hit, and the 'Oxford' Symphony No.92, performed when he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Music from Oxford University. Haydn was well received in England, the words of one critic summing up the English admiration: "…it is no wonder that to souls capable of being touched by music, Haydn should be an object of homage, and even of idolatry."
It was at this time that he wrote the most famous of his 29 piano trios—the celebrated Piano Trio in G major, No.23 with its famous Gypsy Rondo finale. The brilliant dance of this last movement is a fine example of Haydn's sense of humour and underlines his Slavonic roots, the piece marked 'all'Ongarese' (in a Hungarian, or gypsy, style).
Back in Vienna, with yet another new prince in charge and this one eager to restore the musical reputation of the Esterházy family, Haydn resumed work in the household. Under a more relaxed contract, he was to compose a new mass each summer for the Princess's name-day. The six masses he wrote for this purpose, including his most famous and final mass, Mass in C minor (1802), are strengthened by his command of symphonic technique. As well as his two oratorios, The Seasons and The Creation (his biggest choral masterpiece, inspired by having heard Handel in London), he continued to write quartets, including the 'Emperor', but he was to write no more symphonies.
Haydn spent the last years of his life in retirement surrounded by the love of friends and the respect of younger musicians. In May 1809, when Napoleon's armies invaded Vienna, Bonaparte himself ordered a guard to be placed outside the composer's home where he lay on his deathbed. He died on 31st May 1809 and at his memorial service two weeks later, Mozart's Requiem was sung in Vienna's Schottenkirche.
In terms of his vocal compositions (oratorios, operas and masses), Haydn heralds the close of an epoch rather than the dawn of a new one, while in his instrumental music (particularly in the genres of the string quartet and the symphony), he is granted the unrivalled position of first great master. He emancipated melody from its confinement to ceremonial courtliness and, infusing it with his native folk music, gave it vitality. Above all, Haydn wrote with directness, simplicity and humour, the following remark he once made about himself being the most revealing: "Anyone can see that I'm a good-natured fellow".
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