Classical Composer : Franz Joseph Haydn
by Betty Fry
Franz Joseph Haydn was born in a small village on the Austro-Hungarian border in 1732. His father was a wheelwright and a great lover of music, his mother had a fine voice, and although they had a total of twelve children both parents were astonished at how quickly young Joseph in particular could pick up the tunes in the family sing-alongs.
Music and singing were therefore very much a part of his simple family back ground, from which however, he was soon uprooted. The organist of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, happened to hear Haydn sing and immediately recruited him.
So at the age of eight he found himself in the capital of the Empire, singing in the Cathedral choir, and taking part in Palace concerts. But as soon as his voice broke he was dismissed and left to fend for himself. Wandering the streets of the city, he made a meager living, copying parts and playing the violin at dances. But after working as accompanist at the Italian composer Nicola Porpora’s musical academy, he got a job at a minor court and then disastrously married Anne Marie Keller, a wig maker’s daughter, who plagued his life for forty years. He had been in love with her younger sister, Josepha, but married Anne Marie after Josepha entered a convent. His wife proved to be an intolerable nag who cared nothing for music, and after many unhappy and childless years they separated.
He had by now composed his first symphony – a youthful and immature work, the shortcomings of which he very well knew. Since he could not afford to take lessons, he decided, with characteristic good sense and determination, to teach himself harmony and counterpoint, and improve his musical knowledge and technique.
He carried out these intentions to such good effect that in 1761 he was invited to join the private orchestra of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, head of the richest and most powerful family in Hungary, who were great patrons of music and the arts.
Haydn’s duties as Vice-Kapellmeister were numerous and demanding. But within a year Prince Paul had died and was succeeded by his brother Nikolaus. In 1766 he promoted Haydn to Kapellmeister, and at Esterhaza started to build a new palace, modeled on Versailles, with a marionette theatre and a 400 seat opera house as magnificent as it was isolated.
“There was no one near to confuse me, so I was forced to become original”, Haydn said of the wonderful opportunity this afforded him. Free of all restrictions of any kind, he produced a vast amount of music of all kinds, and fame crept up on him unawares.
Foreign editions began to appeal and commissions came in from abroad. After meeting Mozart, he developed a great admiration for his music and the men became firm friends.
He was invited to perform before the King and Queen of England, and whilst in London he was stirred by the national anthem ‘God Save the King’. It inspired him to start work on ‘The Emperor’s Hymn’. This will be familiar as the theme of the German National anthem, which was to become one of his most popular songs, and certainly the composer’s favourite.
At this time also, Haydn was offered a biblical text for an oratorio on the subject of the Creation, which had been originally prepared for Handel. Haydn, although well into his sixties, accepted the challenge, and ‘The Creation’– the crowning glory of his later years – was first performed in April 1798, in Vienna. He followed this in 1801 with another oratorio ‘The Seasons’, and it was not long before both works were being performed throughout Europe.
‘The Creation’ is in three parts. The first and second parts describe the actual creation of heaven and earth, human beings and all other animals. The third section begins with a joyful vision of paradise, and ends with the praising of God.
The opening of this famous oratorio is one of the most extraordinary pieces of music I have ever heard. It portrays the first verse of the ‘Book of Genesis’, which speaks of ‘the earth without form and void’, and ‘darkness over the face of the abyss’.
A thunderous drumbeat introduces the cosmic scenario. Brief, eerie phrases on the strings and woodwind, and nothing but fragments of themes and unsettling discords add to an amazing sense of anarchic darkness, before the blinding light of creation arrives.
And finally the exultant chorus ‘The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God’ forms the conclusion to this great oratorio. Sun, moon and stars, clouds, rain and snow, the continents and the seas, the grass and the trees – all have been included in his musical picture of God’s work during the first four days of the Creation.
The glorious chorus features the Archangels Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael who are wonderfully characterized by soprano, tenor and bass, while an exuberant orchestra provides a rousing accompaniment to their ecstatic song of praise.
Through long hours Haydn prepared more drafts for ‘The Creation’ than any other of his works, and this dedication to perfection resulted in music that can only be described as transcendental. If you have never listened to this oratorio you are missing an experience.
The text was written in both English and German. The original was by a forgotten English composer, Thomas Linley, who used the story of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost.
“Never before was I so devout as when I composed ‘The Creation’. Every day I fell on my knees to pray to God to give me strength’ is how Haydn described the toll it took on his life.
A kindly fatherly figure, his protégés and fellow musicians gave Haydn the nickname ‘Papa Haydn’ as a mark of affection. But he also came to be known as the ‘Father of the Symphony’, because he did more than any other composer to transform the symphony from a simple kind of overture into the substantial orchestral piece we know today.
After the magnificence of ‘The Creation‘ I have now chosen to play the well known ‘Trumpet Concerto in E flat‘ which Haydn wrote soon after he had returned home to Vienna after two triumphant visits to England.
At the age of 64 he was the most revered living composer. Perhaps he was looking back contentedly over his mainly happy and illustrious life as he wrote this restful movement. Certainly the trumpet, which can sound so piercing and imperious, here takes on a warm and mellow tone. Compared with the piano or the violin, there are very few concertos for the trumpet, and this one has to be my favourite.
Haydn needs no hyperbole. He was probably one of the most prolific composers who have ever lived, and certainly one of the greatest. Much of his work has been lost, either destroyed by fire, or simply mislaid.
But a great deal remains to stand as testimony to a genius that encompassed all the musical forms of his time, and upon whose shoulders rests the progress of classical music during the 19th century and beyond.