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Joseph Haydn: Shrewd Classicist

Contract re-negotiation allowed his works to be more accessible and well-known

Born into a family of twelve (!) children, Joseph Haydn - unlike Johann Sebastian Bach - did not come from a big family with a rich musical tradition. His father was a wheelwright - a craftsman who fixed wooden wheels in the village of Rohrau, thirty miles southeast of Vienna. But Haydn's musical talent was evident to his family and neightbours and fortunately for him, a relative who was a schoolmaster, oversaw his formal education. But Haydn claimed later to have been thrown in the deep end, learning by doing. He claimed of his early training as a choirboy that "I never had a proper teacher. I started with the practical side... I listened more than I studied, and tried to turn to good account all the things that impressed me."

At the age of seventeen he left the choir, and while he managed as a music teacher in Vienna for the next ten years, he made a small living until his breakthrough came when he secured the patronage of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, who happened to hear one of his symphonies. Aged twenty-nine, Haydn's new court duties included training the choir and orchestra, maintaining the instruments, and composing. When the prince died in 1762, his successor and brother, Prince Nikolaus, demanded a greater quantity of music for his social entertainment and Hadyn soon found himself churning out symphonies, concertos, chamber music and operas in vast numbers.

The composer J. S. Bach was not particularly appreciated during his lifetime, and in his later years was perhaps seen as a bit of a dinosaur - not unlike William Walton (see "Posts" section); had it not been for the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn, who was responsible for the revival of Bach's work, and resurrecting his post-humous success, the volumes of works by Bach may have been covered in cobwebs in the German courts of Weimar, Cothen and Leipzig.

Haydn's work, too, may have encountered a similar fate had he not managed to re-negotiate the terms of his contract. This allowed him to compose for other patrons, and not just Esterhazy. He also secured the permission to have his works published, instead of being the intellectual property of the courts of Esterhazy. All these allowed him to take advantage of his growing international reputation in the 1780s, and expound it, rather than merely being a servant of the court of Esterhazy. In this way he demonstrated a creative shrewdness that would also be seen in Irving Berlin, who copyrighted the sheet music to one of his famous songs to claim secondary royalties.

While Hadyn was aware of his popularity, he was perhaps slightly unaware of the extent of it, and he was stunned by the welcome of the London high society when he visited the capital in 1791. His residence at the time has now been transformed to become the Handel House Museum in London, where you can visit to get a glimpse of his life at the time. English society courted him immensely - Oxford University conferred an honorary Doctor of Music upon him, and he was invited by George III to stay in the capital permanently when he returned in 1794 for a second visit, but unfortunately he did not take up the offer.

While Haydn is recognised by history as "The Father of the Symphony", his output for piano wasn't that bad either - he produced 62 sonatas for piano which have been said to be better than Mozart's. It has been said that while Haydn himself was not an exceptional pianist, the standard of music in his sonatas is high because he wrote for gifted amateurs, particularly women for whom a concert career was forbidden at the time. Mozart, on the other hand, wrote sonatas for his students, and hence the technical difficulty is apparently easier. Whatever you choose to think, it is no denying that Haydn was a pioneer in music history through the establishment and consolidation of various classical music forms. He was the eldest, and lived the longest of the four composers of the "First Viennese School", so perhaps it is also not an understatement to say that what we recognise to be as a Classical sound strongly demonstrates Haydn's influence.

Did you know that Haydn's tomb contains two skulls? Find out why!

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