Joseph Haydn

‘Father of the Symphony’

Created date

June 13th, 2018
Portrait of composer Joseph Haydn, circa 1791. Haydn’s work has prompted musicologists to dub him the “Father of the Symphony” and the “Father of the String Quartet.”

Portrait of composer Joseph Haydn, circa 1791. Haydn’s work has prompted musicologists to dub him the “Father of the Symphony” and the “Father of the String Quartet.”

His contributions to classical music have prompted some musicologists to dub him the “Father of the Symphony.” While not a household name in the manner of Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms, Joseph Haydn was an artistic luminary worthy of equal respect. 

Born in 1732 in Rohrau, Austria, near the Hungarian border, Haydn hailed from a humble family and a life of general neglect. His father Mathias was a wheelwright, and his mother Maria, a cook in the palace of local aristocrat Aloys Thomas Raimund.

Both were avid music lovers and accomplished amateur musicians: Mathias enjoyed folk music and played the harp; Maria was a singer. Neither of them had formal training or could read music, but their modest talents were enough to cultivate young Joseph’s natural musical talent.

Unfortunately, Haydn had no chance of serious training in the provincial village of Rohrau. And so, at age six, his parents sent him to live with a relative, Hainburg choirmaster Johann Frankh.

Life with Frankh was, at best, unpleasant.

Haydn suffered from malnutrition and wore dirty, ill-fitting clothes. He did, however, learn to play the violin and harpsichord and also sang treble in Frankh’s choir.

The boy had quite a voice, attracting the attention of the Vienna-based St. Stephen’s Cathedral music director Georg von Reutter. In 1740, Haydn subsequently left Frankh’s home and moved in with Reutter and his family.

Over the next several years, he received additional education in everything from singing and keyboards to violin. Despite his early talent as a vocalist, though, the natural effects of puberty soon robbed him of his once intoxicating voice.

In 1749, Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa carped about his changing tone, which she described as “crowing.” Reutter, in turn, cut the teen loose, putting him on the street.

Thus began Haydn’s career as a freelance composer and musician.

Initially, it was tough-going for him. He worked intermittently as a street singer and music teacher until the 1750s, when he fell under the tutelage of Italian composer Niccolo Porpora—the man who he credited as introducing him to “the true fundamentals of composition.”

Still, Haydn was largely self-taught, learning counterpoint, for instance, by studying the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, as well as various books on theory and technique. Soon, he was highly proficient and in possession of a rising reputation, having composed his first opera The Limping Devil in 1751.

Shortly thereafter, he found jobs playing at balls for the children of Viennese royals, before earning the consistent patronage of area aristocrats.

Passion for composing

At first, Haydn focused on composing operas for passionate benefactors such as Hungarian Prince Nikolaus I of the Esterhazy dynasty. But when his contract expired, he was able to follow his bliss as a composer, which led him to the realm of quartets and symphonies.

And it was in this period, in 1779, that Haydn achieved international renown.

His string quartets Op. 33, 50, 54, 55, and 64 were wildly successful. From 1785 to 1786, he likewise composed six major works, known collectively as the “Paris Symphonies.”

By 1790, his catalog had built enough notoriety for Haydn to embark on a tour of London, in which he first performed what was appropriately nicknamed “Miracle.”

Originally entitled Symphony No. 96, the piece debuted on March 11, 1791, at the Hanover Square Rooms in London. In the middle of the performance, a chandelier fell from the ceiling and, miraculously, injured no one—hence the symphony’s name.

Four years later, Haydn returned to Vienna a musical celebrity and a commercial success.

Sadly, the neglect he endured in his youth led to health problems in his older years. He finished his last notable work in 1802—a mass called the “Harmoniemesse,” which he wrote for his long-time patrons the Esterhazys.

Now, Haydn was only capable of tackling sporadic projects and did so for the next seven years. On May 26, 1809, he collapsed after a performance of his “Emperors Hymn.”

Five days later, he died, leaving to the world an extraordinary musical legacy.

Selected compositions of Joseph Haydn

String quartets

Opus 1 (1764)

Opus 2 (1765)

Opus 9 (1769)

Opus 20, the “Sun” quartets (1772)

Opus 33, the “Russian” quartets (1781)

Opus 50, the “Prussian” quartets (1787)

Opus 54, 55, and 64, the “Tost” quartets, sets I/II (1788-90)

Opus 77, the “Lobkowitz” quartets (1799)



Symphony Nos. 1-21, (1759-64)

Symphony No. 22, “Philosopher” (1764)

Symphony No. 26, “Lamentatione” (1768)

Symphony No. 43, “Mercury” (1771)

Symphony No. 45, “Farewell” (1772)

Symphony No. 53, “L’imperiale (1779)

Symphony No. 69, “Laudon” (1779)

Symphony No. 73, “La chasse” (1782)

The Paris Symphonies, Nos. 82-87 (1785-86)

The London Symphonies, Nos. 93-104 (1791-95)

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