Haydn was loved and respected from Moscow to London during his lifetime. What composer prior to Haydn could boast such international fame? None, not even Handel had been so universally loved during his life. Haydn was jovial, friendly, and sociable. He was said to have gotten along with everyone, from cooks and stable boys to emperors. His affable nature and fatherly charm earned him the nickname Papa. He handled his fame and fortune with dignity and stoic equanimity.
Haydn is sometimes called the father of the symphony, though he did not invent the symphony. The symphony came about as a confluence of the French Orchestral Suite and the German Orchestral Serenade, and I don’t think it is known who wrote the first one. The symphony was considered an easy-listening genre at first, but eventually certain composers, such as Abel (1723-1787) and Stamitz (1745-1801) began to take the symphony more seriously and their works were quite popular and were influential on both Haydn and Mozart. It was Josef Haydn who did more for the evolution of the symphony than any other eighteenth century composer, though Mozart made a few outstanding contributions.
Some people are confused by the fact that Haydn is said to have composed 115 symphonies, but his last one is called his Symphony # 104. This discrepancy is resolved by the fact that Haydn’s symphonies were collected and put in chronological order shortly after his death, and many years later some early symphonies were discovered. The belatedly discovered ones were given numbers such as 16a or 12a and 12b and interpolated into his repertoire of symphonies. The same thing happened with Mozart, who composed 55 symphonies, but his last one is called symphony # 41.
Haydn transformed the string quartet from the easy-listening genre that it was into something quite artful and sophisticated. Before Haydn transformed it, the string quartet was nothing more than a simple divertimento, with the first violin almost always having the melodic material while the other three instruments accompanied. In 1782 Haydn composed his opus 33, which was a set of six string quartets. It was not mere hype when Haydn announced that they are in a completely new style. When the sixteen year-old Mozart came across Haydn’s opus 33 quartets he was profoundly affected by them. With one set of six quartets Haydn changed the string quartet forever. Rather than being merely in a simple style of melody and accompaniment, these works sound more like a conversation taking place among four instruments. True, the first violin still has the melodic material more often than the other three instruments, but these quartets paved the way for the more ‘democratic’ string quartets of Beethoven, in which all four instruments are given almost equal importance. There exist 68 string quartets by Haydn, though he composed somewhat more than that, several having been lost to posterity.
Haydn pioneered such devices as having an accompaniment figure change fluidly and subtly into the principal melodic voice. He was the first composer to really develop his themes in a concentrated manner, an aspect of his style that deeply affected Beethoven. His themes are often terse and based on a simple short motif, making them ideal for development. Haydn was much more unconventional than Mozart. He delighted in sudden surprises. Such things as jarringly unexpected changes of harmony, false reprises, and irregular phrase structure, were part of his stock and trade. He loved to shock the listener with sudden and unexpected changes to remote keys. Sometimes he will stun the listener with an abrupt silence that comes without warning. Many of his stylistic techniques can be found in the music of other composers, most notably C.P.E. Bach, but Haydn used these procedures in a more coherent and effective manner than any prior composer. No other composer in history ever had his facility at appealing to the average listener and the music connoisseur at the same time. There is always a superficial attractiveness to his music, making it enjoyable to anyone, but if you listen carefully you will find deeper levels of musical invention.
Haydn loved to break all the “rules.” His earlier works are much more in line with the standard model of sonata form, but one finds in so much of his later works that he creatively distorts, and even sometimes inverts the traditional sections of a sonata form movement. A true bohemian, he was always unconventional, always experimenting, and even when following conventional forms there is usually something of a nonconformist nature in his music.
Haydn was very fond of folk music and incorporated folk songs into some of his symphonies. The theme of the finale of his symphony 104 is my favorite example. It is a catchy and simple melody and Haydn uses it to great effect. Sometimes it is hard to tell when Haydn is using an actual folksong or is using a melody which sounds like a folk song but is actually a melody of his own creation.
A large part of his genius was his ability to make so much out of so little. Many of his works, particularly first movements of symphonies and chamber music, use thematic material that is terse and simple, but pregnant with possibilities, and the development, or working out of these themes is what gives the music so much of its expressiveness. His ability to make a large movement grow out of a simple germ of an idea had a profound effect on Beethoven.
His music is full of wit and humor. There are many places in his symphonies and string quartets where he expected to evoke laughter from the listener, though this is for the most part, lost on modern audiences. His music is almost always jovial, happy, cheerful and exuberant. He seems to have been almost incapable of composing sad music.
Though his operas are considered second-rate and most of his concertos are not well loved, he composed a huge amount of quartets and various types of chamber music, and of course symphonies. A great deal of his music was very popular in his lifetime and remains popular today, though his popularity is somewhat eclipsed by Mozart.
In the classical age, the same composers who were good at opera were good at concertos, because a classical concerto movement is more or less the same thing as an opera aria, the only difference being that the star is an instrumentalist, not a singer. Haydn’s only truly great concerto is his trumpet concerto, but it is a rather conventional work for a composer as unconventional as he was. His church music was strongly criticized in his lifetime and deemed inappropriate for the church. His masses are really just symphonies with choir and orchestra. Unlike his younger contemporary Mozart, Haydn did not have a strong grasp of baroque style, and the church did not deem the new classical style as appropriate for ecclesiastical music. His masses contain some moments of beauty, but for the most part do not approach the greatness of his symphonies. In his last mass however, Haydn finally accomplished a true masterpiece of church music in the classical style. Reacting to the criticism of his church music, Haydn once made the comment that his younger brother Michael was a better church composer than he himself was.
In 1761 Haydn obtained the job of music director and composer for Prince Anton Esterhazy, an immensely wealthy prince who lived in a lavish country estate near Vienna. Haydn worked at the Esterhazy palace for 30 years. The prince played an unusual instrument called the baryton. The baryton was a bowed instrument with sympathetic strings and was about the size of a cello. It has a rather unusual sound. Haydn composed 175 chamber works that include this instrument, 126 of them being trios.
At the Esterhazy palace Haydn was somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, and in a famous quote he attributed his originality to his isolation. He said, “I could make experiments, observe what made an impression and what weakened it… I could run risks. I was set apart from the world with nobody to confuse me and intrude on my development; and so I was compelled to become original.”
Besides symphonies and string quartets, the other genre of music that Haydn perfected was the piano trio. The piano trio is a work that was written for piano, violin, and cello, but is called a piano trio because the piano dominates the musical texture. Haydn composed only a few piano trios in his early years and those early ones are rather banal, but most of the later ones are outstanding. There are twenty-six piano trios by Haydn and several more spurious ones that are sometimes attributed to him. In Haydn’s piano trios the cello rarely attains an independent role and almost always has the job of doubling the bass line of the piano. Mozart gave the cello much more independence in his piano trios, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily better than Haydn’s. Of the five piano trios by Mozart, only two are masterpieces. The other three are merely charming and pretty. Haydn gave us many masterpieces in that genre.
As mentioned above, the cello in Haydn’s piano trios has almost no independent parts, but merely doubles the bass line of the piano. Had Haydn been using a modern piano he probably would have given the cello independence in those trios. The fact is, the piano of the time had a rather weak-sounding bass and could not sustain a note, either bass or treble, for any appreciable length. The sound died quickly. In Haydn’s piano trios the cello not only adds strength and fullness to the bass line of the piano, but it is used to sustain notes whenever the music calls for a bass note to be held for any length. In his piano trios the violin mostly has the role of accompaniment, but has the melody now and then, usually being doubled by the treble in the piano when it does take the melody. It can be said that his piano trios are actually piano sonatas with a violin and cello helping to overcome the deficiencies of the eighteenth century piano. It can also be said that the artistry and invention in Haydn’s piano trios is far beyond that of his sonatas for solo piano.
I should mention that the stringed instruments and pianos of the eighteenth century created a smoother blend of sound than our modern ones. Players of modern instruments, especially violinists, have to understand this and adjust their playing accordingly when playing these piano trios, or for that matter, any chamber music for piano and strings from the classical period.
Haydn retired in 1790 from his job as director of music at the Esterhazy palace. Feeling somewhat restless, he planned a trip to London. His young friend, Wolfgang Mozart begged him not to go, but off he went. On his way to London he stopped over in Bonn, Germany and met the 19 year-old Beethoven. In London he was a raving success. He composed his symphonies 92-98 while he was there. The British audience was electrified by these symphonies, and in awe of Haydn, who conducted them from the piano, as was the custom at the time.
On his return to Vienna in the summer of 1792 he found out that Mozart had died the previous December. Saddened by the loss of his incredibly talented friend, he said, “The world will not see genius like that for another hundred years.”
He returned to London in 1794 and while there composed symphonies 99-104 as well as his most famous piano trio, called the Gypsy Trio because of the use of a gypsy melody as the theme of the last movement. Again he was a smashing success in London. He had retired comfortably from his service at the Esterhazy palace, but his two London trips made him a wealthy man.
Having returned to Vienna in 1795 he spent the remainder of his life there. Baron Von Swieten, a man who was influential to Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, encouraged Haydn to compose an oratorio in the style of Handel. He composed two of them. His oratorios The Creation and The Seasons are among his finest works.
Haydn left the world with fifty-one piano sonatas and numerous other works for solo piano. No composer at that time period treated any form of solo piano music as a serious art form, and Haydn was no exception. The piano of the time was too limited in its ability. It only had five octaves. The sound died quickly, thus it was impossible to achieve a legato sound or to hold a note over several measures. The responsiveness to touch was not very good. For both Haydn and Mozart the music for solo piano is rather simple, but the music for piano in combination with other instruments is much more creative. His last three piano sonatas are an exception, and helped pave the way for Beethoven. He rubbed elbows with the best musicians and composers in England during his two visits and absorbed a certain amount of the English style of piano composition. And he had access to the newest and best pianos in London.
That last point is very important. During the 1790s improvements were constantly being made to the piano. Piano makers added another octave to the piano and they were always looking for ways to make the keys more responsive to touch. London piano makers preferred a louder, more robust instrument than their Viennese counterparts and the British Broadwood Company led the way. The clear articulation of the Viennese pianos was not possible on the English Broadwood pianos, but the louder, richer sound of the Broadwoods lent itself to grand gestures such as explosive full-bodied chords, fast runs across the keyboard, and stronger dynamic contrasts. Not only did Haydn find new inspiration from the Broadwood piano and British composers, but he had the luck of meeting a woman in London who was a true piano virtuoso. His last three piano sonatas were composed for this woman, with the new six-octave Broodwood in mind. Thus his last three sonatas go far beyond the simple musical invention of his previous ones.
In 1794 Haydn returned to his old job as director of music at the Esterhazy palace, but only on a part-time basis. Prince Anton had passed away and Prince Nicholas Esterhazy replaced him. The Esterhazy headquarters was moved to Vienna. It was
Prince Nicholas who commissioned Haydn’s best masses.
There are extant 13 masses for choir and orchestra by Haydn. The first seven were written before 1782. The last six were written between 1796 and 1802, and were commissioned by Prince Nicholas Esterhazy II for the celebration of the name-day of his wife. Some people consider these masses to be among Haydn’s greatest masterpieces, but they are rather uneven in that there are some great passages here and there, and even some entire movements that sound wonderful throughout, but there is much material in them that simply doesn’t achieve the greatness that Haydn achieved in other genres, such as the symphony.
The one genre in the classical period that was most problematic for composers is church music. The classical style is a dramatic style and is simply not suited for ecclesiastical service. The Church, both Catholic and Protestant, has always been resistant to stylistic change and innovation, but was particularly resistant to intrusions of the classical style. To make matters worse, the Austrian government, under Joseph II (Emperor of Austria 1780-1790), imposed restrictions on the use of instruments in the church. Haydn’s masses and other church music were roundly criticized in his life as being trivial works, unsuitable for the church, and still to this day are criticized for the same reasons.
In the last two decades of the eighteenth century, use of the old baroque style in church music was analogous to using old-fashioned language in a sermon, lending a sense of dignity and solemnity. But what significant composer of the late eighteenth century besides Mozart had a good grasp of the baroque ecclesiastic style? Haydn, though familiar with Handel’s output from his trips to London, didn’t imbue his masses with much baroque influence, save for a canon or fugue here and there. Late in his life he was very much influenced by Handel’s oratorios, which are not true ecclesiastical music, but are stage works, written with a theatrical performance, and are sort of a mixture of ecclesiastical style and opera. Haydn’s fugues are completely different from anything by Bach, but sound as if they could have been written by Handel himself, though he seems to not have known Handel’s true church music, such as the Chandos Anthems and Dixit Dominus. Unlike Mozart, Haydn was not familiar with the music of J.S. Bach.
As stated above, Haydn’s masses are essentially symphonies with choir and soloists, though a certain amount of concerto-like effects are used in these masses, contrasting the soloists with the choir, as well as contrasting the soloists with the orchestra and the choir with the orchestra. As mentioned above, the concerto was not one of Haydn’s strong points, however he did occasionally use the concerto-like contrasts to good effect in his masses.
Haydn’s last two masses are without a doubt his best. The very last one is considered by music historians and critics to be his finest. It is called the Harmoniemesse because of its lavish use of wind instruments (Harmonie is an old-fashioned German word for wind instrument.). It is the longest of the last six masses and is generally considered his best mass, melding the classical style to ecclesiastic music with more perfection than any of his other works. If you choose to listen to only one of Haydn’s masses, this should be the one you choose. In his so-called Harmoniemesse Mass, Haydn achieved a high level of artistry and beauty throughout.
Before I end this discussion of Haydn’s church music I would like to mention two ecclesiastical works of Haydn that I find quite enjoyable. The Te Deum is a rather brief work, consisting of three continuous sections. The middle section is a C-minor adagio and the outer two sections in C-major, are very festive, and full of grandeur. This is a splendid work. The other work I would like to mention is The Seven Last Words of Christ and it is very different from the Te Deum. This work exists in three versions. The first is an orchestral work from 1785. The second version is a string quartet version from 1787. The final version, and the one I’m familiar with, is the oratorio version. In 1796 Haydn adapted this music to a text and thus created a short oratorio. It has a certain darkness and poignancy not found in Haydn’s other music. The composer himself highly valued this piece of music and it is unique in his output.
In 1797 Haydn set the poem “God save Franz the Emperor” to music, and he later used the same melody for the slow movement of his string quartet Opus 76, #3. In the year 1922 this tune, with new words, became the German national anthem. It also became the Austrian national anthem.
The last five years of Haydn’s life are very sad. He was constantly ill and was so weak that he couldn’t even sit at the piano and compose (Haydn was one of those composers who had the habit of composing at the piano. Some composers, such as J.S. Bach had told their students not to compose at the keyboard or your imagination will be fettered by what your fingers can do, but Haydn seemed to do very well with this method).This was very frustrating to him because he kept saying that his head was constantly flooded with new musical ideas but he didn’t have the strength to sit at his piano and work them out. On May 31, 1809, with Napoleon’s army sieging Vienna for the second time, Haydn quietly passed away. Mozart’s Requiem was performed at his funeral. The young Franz Peter Schubert was one of the choirboys in the funeral service.
Haydn’s music was largely forgotten after his death and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that his greatness was once again widely recognized and his popularity restored. Though his influence on Beethoven was profound, he was not much of an influence on other nineteenth century composers, Brahms being perhaps the only exception. Beethoven had deep love and respect for Haydn the man as well as Haydn the composer. A portrait of Joseph Haydn hung in Beethoven’s apartment, staring downward at Ludwig as he composed his titanic masterpieces.