FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN  –  The father of the “Classical Symphony” and the “String Quartet”

Franz Joseph Haydn, known as the “Father” of the Classical Symphony and the String Quartet, was born on 31st March, 1732 in Rohrau, a small market town on the borders of lower Hungary and Austria. His father Mathias Haydn was an obscure wheelwright and his mother Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Haydn was a devout peasant woman. Both his parents were unlettered musicians and the boy soon showed remarkable musical leanings. This attracted the attention of a distant relative Johann Mathais Franck, a school master in the neighbouring town of Hainburg, who took the boy to Hainburg at the age of 6 and trained him as a chorister in his Choir School. Haydn later wrote, “Almighty God to whom I render thanks for all his unnumbered mercies, gave me such facility in music that by the time I was six I stood up like a man and sang masses in the Church Choir and could play a little on the Harpsichord and Violin.” Two years later, Johann Adam Joseph Karl Georg Reutter, the Chapel Master of the famed St.Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, on a visit to Hainburg, auditioned the young boy and was thoroughly impressed with his beautiful singing voice. On his recommendation, Haydn obtained a place in the Boys’ Choir of St.Stephen’s Cathedral. In 1749, his voice broke and according to Empress Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina began to sound like a “crowing rooster”. One day, Haydn played an innocuous prank upon a fellow chorister and snipped off his pigtail. This served as a flimsy excuse for the Chapel Master to drop him from the Choir. Haydn was abruptly set adrift into the winter streets of Vienna and his sole worldly possessions were three ragged shirts and a threadbare coat. A few friends lent him some money and he moved into a small garret owned by his friend Johann Michael Spangler. Here he gave music lessons and tried to increase his meagre earnings by playing serenades as a dance floor violinist. At the same time, he entered into a rigorous course of study drawing inspiration from the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the second son of Johann Sebastian Bach. The first fruits of his work were a comic opera “The New Limping Devil” and a Mass in F Major, both written in 1751.

Haydn Statue LawZIt was in Vienna that Haydn met the venerable Italian poet and librettist Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi, better known by his pseudonym “Metastasio”, and the legendary Italian singing master and opera composer Nicola Antonio Porpora. Porpora accepted Haydn as his pupil and gave him instructions in the “true fundamentals of composition”. Haydn was now able to gain access to the higher echelons of society. The turning point in Haydn’s career came in 1755 when he accepted an invitation to stay at the idyllic Schloss Weinzierl country estate of the music loving Austrian nobleman Karl Joseph von Fürnberg. Here he wrote in rapid succession his first symphony and his first quartet, the two earliest examples of the forms with which his name is most closely associated. On his return to Vienna in 1756, Haydn became famous as a teacher and composer and in 1759 was appointed conductor to the private band of the Bohemian count Baron Ferdinand Maximilian von Morzin, for whom he wrote several works. In 1760,he was appointed Second Chapel Master to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. The Esterházys were an important Hungarian aristocratic family and the appointment to the Esterházy Prince offered Haydn a tremendous scope for his artistic development. At the same time, he was able to think of settling down and starting a family. In 1760, he married Maria Anna Theresia Keller, the daughter of a Viennese wig maker who had befriended him in his days of poverty. But the marriage proved to be a disaster and produced neither a pleasant, peaceful home nor any children. Maria did not understand music and showed no interest in her husband’s creative endeavours. She was foul tempered, abrasive and irksome and even went to the ridiculous extent of using his precious manuscripts as table mats, pastry tin linings or hair curling papers. Naturally, Haydn was soon separated from his wife.

From 1760 to 1790, Haydn remained with the Esterházys principally at their country estate seats of Esterházy and Eisenstadt with occasional visits to Vienna in the winter. Esterhazy presented the ideal opportunities of developing and perfecting his own style. As he himself wrote, “I was cut off from the world, there was no one to confuse or torment me and I was forced to become original.” In 1762, Paul Esterházy died and he was succeeded by his brother Nikolaus I,  nicknamed the “Lover of Spendour”, who increased Haydn’s salary, showed him every manner of favour and in 1766 gave Haydn sole direction of the orchestra. In addition, he had to take care of the musicians, making sure they wore white clean stockings, kept their uniforms neat and did not get into any mischief. So well did he look after them that they began to affectionately call him “Papa Haydn”. Haydn made most of his opportunity and produced a continuous stream of compositions in every known form.

Haydn WorkIn the meantime, Haydn had made a name for himself throughout Europe. In Vienna, he was hailed as the “darling of our nation”. His works were reprinted and performed in every capital from Madrid to St.Petersburg. He received a commission from the Cathedral of Cadiz, Spain, for a Good Friday Oratorio and from Naples a series of concertos. In the winter of 1781-2, Haydn met Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the residence of the Esterházys at Vienna. The cordiality of their relations and the mutual influence they exercised over one another are of the highest significance in the history of western classical music. “It was from Haydn that I first learnt to write a quartet”, wrote Mozart and it was from Mozart that Haydn learnt the richer style and full mastery of orchestral effect by which his late symphonies are distinguished.

In 1790, Prince Nikolaus I died and the orchestra was disbanded. Haydn went to Vienna where he was showered with invitations and offers and became an important figure in society. The most staggering offer came from the German born impresario and violinist Johann Peter Saloman. “I am Saloman from London and I have come to fetch you” was his remark when he met Haydn. Although 60 years old, Haydn accepted his invitation to visit London. His friend Mozart enquired anxiously how he would manage in a country where people spoke a foreign language. Haydn’s reply was, “My language is understood all over the world.” Haydn arrived in England on New Year’s Day 1791 and was welcomed with great enthusiasm. He spent two seasons in London where the cosmopolitan style of life brought out the best in him. London High Society paid him rich accolades, Ambassadors and Princes invited him to attend their elegant salons, honours were heaped upon him, including an honourary Doctorate of Music degree from the University of Oxford, and he was lionized as a celebrity. The Prince of Wales (the future King George IV) invited Haydn to dinners, parties and dances and Haydn composed for him the ever popular “Prince of Wales March”.
On 11th March,1791, Haydn appeared in person at the Hanover Square Rooms in London to conduct the premiere of his newly composed Symphony No.96 in D Major. The enthusiastic audience left their seats and converged towards the podium to get a better look at the celebrated composer. A large chandelier came crashing down but no one was injured. The awe struck audience loudly exclaimed “Miracle! Miracle!” and the symphony was thereafter nicknamed “Miracle”. While Haydn was in England, he started a lively correspondence with Marianne von Genzinger, the wife of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s personal physician who was an accomplished pianist and very much in love with Haydn. On 20th December,1791, Haydn wrote to her from London, “ I am looking forward to coming home like a child, to embrace my close friends. My only regret is that the great Mozart will be missing – if it is true that he is dead. In a hundred years posterity will not see such talent again.” Mozart had in fact died on 5th December,1791. In January,1792, Haydn returned home and breaking journey at Bonn was presented with a Cantata by Ludwig van Beethoven, then aged 22, whom he invited to Vienna as his pupil. Beethoven accepted Haydn’s invitation and on 23rd November,1793, Haydn wrote to the Elector of Cologne Maximilian Franz, “In time Beethoven will aspire to the ranks of one of the greatest composers in Europe and I shall be proud to be able to describe myself as his teacher.

Wien_Mariahilferstraße_Haydn-Denkmal_detailAnother visit to England took place in 1794. Haydn brought with him a sheaf of splendid and newly written works. Haydn’s second visit to England was less brilliant and hectic than his first, but it was no less profitable financially or artistically. To his second period, we owe the last and greatest of his symphonies. Haydn was introduced at Court and King Edward III asked him to perform at the parties of the Prince of Wales but could not get his fees until after his return to Vienna, when the English Parliament sent him a cheque for a hundred guineas. In 1795, Haydn had to take leave of his dear English friends, as the inextricable pull of his native and more tranquil Austria was too overpowering for him. Haydn returned to Vienna in triumph laden with varied music scores and gifts, including a talking parrot. In England, Haydn had been greatly moved by the patriotic feeling aroused when “God save the King” was sung. He decided to write an Austrian National Anthem dedicated to Francis II, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and later of Austria. On the Emperor’s birthday on 12th February, 1797, his new “God Save Emperor Francis” hymn, popularly called the “Emperor’s Hymn”, was sung in almost every Austrian theatre. The “Emperor’s Hymn” is one of Haydn’s most popular compositions. Today, the National Anthem of Germany makes use of the melody of Haydn’s most celebrated hymn.

In 1797, Haydn moved to his new house in Obere Windmuhl in the suburbs of Vienna. It was here in the last few years of his life that he composed the two stupendous oratorios “The Creation” and “The Seasons” and his last great quartets. In 1795, Haydn’s friend Baron Gottfried van Sweiten, a wealthy patron of music, had given Haydn an English libretto on the Creation which had been penned by Thomas Linley the Elder, a well known musical director, singing teacher and entrepreneur, from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. Haydn brought it to Vienna where the Baron suggested that he compose an Oratorio. Haydn set to work with the greatest devotion. He wrote, “Never was I so pious as when composing The Creation. I knelt down every day and prayed to God to strengthen me for my work.” On 16th April,1798, the music was ready and was performed in private for invited guests of the Baron on 30th April,1798 at the iconic Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna. The whole audience was deeply moved and so was Haydn who confessed, “One moment I was as cold as ice, the next I seemed on fire. More than once, I was afraid I should have a stroke.” The first public performance was given on 19th March,1799 at the Burg Theatre at Vienna. Haydn’s noblemen friends paid for the entire cost of the performance and handed over to him the entire box office proceeds. A friend of Haydn, Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, who was present at the concert, observed, “Never since the theatre was built has there been such a fearful and dangerous press of people.

On 1st August,1798, the British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson cornered Napoleon’s fleet anchored in the Aboukir Bay in the historic Battle of the Nile and blew the French warships to smithereens. It was one of his most brilliant naval victories. Far away, in the hot and dusty Austrian town of Eisenstadt, Haydn was in the middle of a new Mass in D Minor to be performed on the Name Day of Princess Maria Esterházy on 15th September,1798. On the very day of the maiden performance on 15th September,1798, news of  Nelson’s great victory reached Vienna. Nelson was admired by Austrians as the hero who had saved their country from the menace of Republican France. Nelson went to Vienna in the summer of 1800 and accompanied by the Scottish diplomat,  antiquarian,  archaeologist  and volcanologist Sir William Hamilton  and his beautiful wife Lady Emma Hamilton (who became famous as Nelson’s mistress and bore him his daughter Horatia), he visited Prince Nikolaus II at Eisenstadt. The Mass was among the works performed and shortly thereafter became known as the “Nelson Mass”. Nelson, who was a shy Englishman, requested Haydn for something to remember him by and Haydn gave the Admiral his pen, whereupon Nelson took out his precious gold watch, which he had carried at Aboukir, and thrust it in Haydn’s hand. The Nelson Mass, according to the noted American authority on Haydn’s music Howard Chandler Robbins Landon, who authored the monumental five-volume treatise on Haydn entitled “Haydn : Chronicles and Works“, is “arguably Haydn’s greatest single contribution.

In 1801, Haydn composed the oratorio “The Seasons”. The work was premiered on 24th April, 1801 at the Schwarzenberg Palace and was a resounding success. The Seasons broke Haydn’s back. On his 74th birthday, he made a pathetic statement,“ Music is boundless and that which could be done is far greater than which has hitherto been accomplished. I often have ideas which would increase the boundaries of the art far beyond its present scope but my physical powers are not equal to the task.” By the end of 1803, Haydn’s health had deteriorated to the point that he became physically unable to compose. He suffered from weakness, dizziness and painfully swollen legs. On a business card given to a visitor, he wrote under a bar of notes, “I have lost all my strength, I am old and weak.” In 1805, the rumour had it that Haydn was dead. The people of Paris resolved to pay a fitting tribute worthy of the man they presumed dead. Mozart’s Requiem was performed and the Italian composer Luigi Cherubini hastily wrote a Funeral Cantata. Haydn was very much amused by the news. Of the Requiem held in Paris, he said, “How good of them. I am most indebted for the unexpected honour. Had I known of the ceremony in advance, I would have traveled myself to conduct the Mass in person.” On 27th March,1808, Haydn attended a performance of The Creation organized in his honour. The frail composer was brought into the concert hall on an armchair to the deafening sound of trumpets and drums and was personally welcomed by Beethoven. But the strain was too much for him and he had to be carried out before the end of the performance. His agitation over the French occupation of Vienna in May,1809, sapped his last ounce of strength. The last song he heard was from a French cavalry officer attached to the army of occupation named Clément Sulémy, who came to sing his own “In Native Worth” from The Creation. The last piece of music he performed was his own “Emperor’s Hymn”. On 26th May,1809, while the French were bombarding Vienna, Haydn dying had himself carried to his piano and played the “Emperor’s Hymn” with amazing gusto three times. That very evening he collapsed and was hastily conveyed to what proved to be to his deathbed.

Haydn died, as Johann Florian Elssler, his faithful valet and copyist, reported “quietly and peacefully” on 31st May,1809 in Vienna and Napoleon had a protective guard of honour  placed outside the house where Haydn had died. It is said that Haydn’s last words were uttered to comfort his servants tormented by the ear-shattering sound of the French cannon bursts – “My children, have no fear, for where Haydn is, no harm can fall.” His funeral was attended by many French generals garrisoned in Vienna and the nobility of Vienna. The music was the Requiem from Haydn’s opera “Morzana”. On 1st June,1809, Haydn was buried in the Hundsturm Cemetry. When his mortal remains were  transferred from the grave to the vaults of the “Bergkirche” or “Hill Church” in Eisenstadt, the great composer’s head was found missing. Followers of Gall’s theory of Craniology, according to which artistic propensities correspond to the inner formation of the cranium, had stolen Haydn’s head and had preserved it. The skull went from hand to hand and it was only in 1953 that it was reunited with the rest of his mortal remains at the Haydn Mausoleum in the Bergkirche, constructed by the Esterházy family in 1932.

In conclusion, my mind turns irresistibly to the glowing tribute paid to Haydn by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the formidable German philosopher, cultural critic, poet, composer and Latin and Greek scholar – “So far as genius can exist in a man who is merely virtuous, Haydn had it. He went as far as the limits that morality sets to the intellect.


ANOOP BOSE, Advocate, Supreme Court of India

E-mail :

3 thoughts on “FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN  –  The father of the “Classical Symphony” and the “String Quartet””

  1. Lalita says:

    Well written

  2. Tanvi says:


  3. Kamal says:

    Well written

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *