Franz Joseph Haydn was born in 1732 into a family of humble origins and very large numbers in the Austrian town of Rohrau. His father, a carter, was taught to play a little harp by a miller friend, and in his rare moments of rest he sang and played the instrument.
Life was hard, comforts at home were minimal, yet it is here, in this context, that one of the most important and prolific composers of the classical period flourished: the initiator of a new musical era – Viennese classicism – and widely regarded as “the father of the symphony”.
But let’s go back to those early years. When his dad, Mathias, sang little Haydn listened enraptured: he too wanted to learn to create such beauty! When he was only six years old, he began to study violin and harpsichord, immediately displaying an uncommon talent. Every Sunday, he left the congregation speechless by singing solo parts in the church choir, while he made his first steps in composition by studying as a self-taught musician.
While his talent grew, the family’s financial conditions did not improve, on the contrary. At 17, Franz Joseph moved to Vienna, penniless yet full of optimism and drive. Music became his means of emancipation from poverty: he played for private parties, sold his first compositions and became a teacher, passionately passing on everything he knew.
Fortune favours the bold, they say, and that is what happened: Nicola Porpora, one of the most important composers of the 18th century and the best-known and most sought-after singing teacher, on a trip to Vienna noticed him and took him on as a pupil. His method was rough, the teacher was notoriously gruff, but between a smack and a swear, he passed on fundamental lessons to the boy.
However, nothing could undermine the bubbly, sometimes even irreverent, and always good-humoured temperament of the young Haydn. Which also shines through in his compositions, such as “Der krumme Teufel”, which mocks many famous and prominent people through music. It only took a first performance for the music to be banned from repeat performances, and today the music is lost, but the debut went down in history. It was 1753 and Haydn, at the age of 21, was ready for his big breakthrough.
The appointment as chapel master for Count Morzin came like a godsend and brought Haydn his much hoped-for financial security… and the opportunity to start a family. In 1760, he married Marianne Keller, an unhappy marriage, to which Haydn added numerous clandestine affairs, some of them very much talked about.
Economic prosperity just as it had arrived suddenly vanished: Count Morzin, plagued by debts, had to dismiss Haydn. But the latter once again does not throw in the towel. On the contrary, he found employment with one of the most important families of the time: the Esterhàzy princes. For them, Haydn wrote new music, conducted the court orchestra, organised musical parties and followed them to their many magnificent residences. Not a bad job, which Haydn kept for thirty years.
During this period he met Mozart, of whom he became a good friend, as evidenced by the dedication Wolfgang Amadeus left him on a series of quartets, one of Haydn’s favourite genres.
In 1790 Prince Nicholas Esterhàzy died and his son disbanded the court orchestra, granting Haydn a pension. The composer, now in his old age but still young in spirit, then took on a new adventure: moving to London to lead a magnificent orchestra! Here he composed his best-known symphonies, including those known as the London Symphonies.
The English environment inspired him a great deal: the famous oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, composed towards the end of the century, were immediately an extraordinary success. In 1808, the first of the two compositions was so famous that it was conducted by Salieri in front of Beethoven: a triumph, the ultimate recognition of a musician who had started from scratch and had come to conquer the musical world!
By now at the end of a very full life, Haydn spent his last years in a luxurious home where he continued to write music with passion, until the onset of his illness. He died during the bombing of Vienna by Napoleon’s troops and it is said that, even on this occasion, he did not lose his well-known good humour and tried to cheer up his frightened servants. To honour him, Napoleon himself sent a guard of honour to his funeral on May 31, 1809.
There are numerous instances that testify to his quick wit, profound optimism and love of life. Even some of the titles he gave his works testify to this. For example, the quartet Op. 55 No. 2 “The Razor” owes its name to a curious episode: one morning Haydn was trying to shave with a cheap razor. Outraged, he exclaimed: “I would give my best quartet for a good razor!”. His London publisher, John Bland, heard the request and ran to hand him his own razor made of fine English steel. The composer laughed about it and honoured his promise.
The title of the symphony The Miracle has a curious inspiration, too: during the first performance, the audience suddenly left the theatre to acclaim the newly arrived Emperor Franz Joseph. At that same instant, a gigantic chandelier fell from the ceiling! But the hall was fortunately empty – a real miracle!
And finally, the famous Symphony No. 45 is called the “Farewell” Symphony. Composed during the Hesteràzy court period, it features a unique structure in which the musicians gradually stop playing and leave the hall after extinguishing the candle on their music stand, leaving the last bars to two violins (one of which was played by Haydn himself). With wit, irony and a constructive approach, Haydn devised an elegant yet clear-cut criticism of the prince, who had refused to allow the musicians a holiday after a particularly long and intense work period.
This was Franz Joseph Haydn: a star in the firmament of music who never failed to keep his feet on the ground, his body and spirit unconditionally human. Son of the people, father of the symphony!