13 Joseph Haydn Facts

You’ve probably heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. But did you know that Franz Joseph Haydn influenced them? 

Haydn had a humble early life in rural Austria but went on to become one of the greatest composers in classical music. As a matter of fact, he laid the foundation for symphony and string quartet. Read on for more Joseph Haydn facts! 

1. He Had a Humble Beginning

Joseph Haydn may have spent his career as a lauded and successful composer, but his early life was very humble! His father was a wheelwright, and his mother was a cook for local aristocratic households in Rohrau, Austria. Neither parent had formal musical training, but Haydn’s father was an enthusiastic and talented folk musician. At the age of six, Haydn left his family home, to which he only returned for short visits later in life.

2. He Had an Impressive Singing Voice

What gave Haydn his ticket out of Rohrau? A cousin who ran a choir school in nearby Hainburg noticed his musical talent and impressive voice and brought him to the school to sing in its choir. While in Hainburg, Haydn’s evident talent impressed the choirmaster of the Choir School of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He invited the young Haydn to become a chorister at the Cathedral in 1740. Haydn was a chorister at the Cathedral for nine years!

3. He Was Supposed to Go Through Castration

In the 18th century, women were not allowed to be church musicians, so young boys’ whose voices hadn’t changed yet sang the higher or “treble” parts sung by sopranos and altos in contemporary choirs. 

Believe it or not, talented boy choristers were sometimes castrated before they went through puberty, “saving” their voice before it could change. These “castrati,” as they were called, sang the complex solo roles in church music and operas that would have been too difficult for child singers. 

Since Haydn’s career depended on his voice, the choirmaster suggested that he should undergo this operation. Nobody’s sure whether his family blocked the procedure or whether the young Joseph Haydn, already fond of women, refused. 

At 17, after his voice changed, Haydn was left to fend for himself. For a while, he worked odd jobs, but eventually, he found work as a choirmaster. Avoiding this operation might have stopped Haydn’s career as a chorister, but it marked the beginning of his career as a conductor and a composer!

4. He Was the Kapellmeister for the Esterházy Family

After a few short jobs, Haydn fell under the patronage of the Esterházy family, one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the Austrian Empire. 

Prince Pál Antal Esterházy knew his music director was getting old and sick, so he appointed Haydn as his assistant conductor and Kapellmeister, or choirmaster. 

This meant he helped the music director with day-to-day duties and was able to learn from him. After Haydn had moved on to become musical director in the 1760s, the composer and pianist Nepomuk Hummel took the position of Kapellmeister. Haydn remained in the Esterházys’ service in some capacity for the rest of his life.

5. He Composed Symphonies in London

Haydn’s fame grew. In the 1790s, when Prince Pál Antal Esterházy’s son dismissed most of his musical staff, Haydn stayed employed. However, he didn’t have much to do. 

At that time, Johann Peter Salomon, a violinist and concert manager, invited Haydn to visit England. Though still technically employed by the Esterházys, Haydn was free to pursue higher-profile opportunities, so he went to London. 

He arrived on New Year’s Day of 1791 and spent eighteen months in London, where he wrote twelve symphonies.

6. He Was Inspired by the British National Anthem

While he was in Britain, Haydn heard the national anthem, “God Save the King.” In response to the French Marsellaise, Haydn wrote “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” or “God Save Emperor Franz.” It was in the style of “God Save the King,” which makes sense since the Austrian Empire and Britain were allies against France in the Napoleonic Wars. This was Austria’s national anthem until World War I and again in the years preceding World War II.

7. He Taught Ludwig Van Beethoven

While he was in Britain, Haydn met the composer Ludwig van Beethoven. The younger composer showed Haydn two of his cantatas, and Haydn was impressed. He offered Beethoven a place as his student, which Beethoven came to Vienna to take! 

8. He Used Humor in His Compositions

You may not think of classical music as much fun, but Haydn’s work was known for its sense of humor – that’s part of what made him so popular as a composer! His string quartet in E flat is known as “The Joke” because of its many false endings. Haydn begins with what sounds like a simple, popular tune, then moves on to a series of false endings designed to make audiences look foolish if they clapped before the piece was actually finished!

9. His Brother Also Wrote Music

Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother, was also a well-known composer in 18th-century Austria. While Joseph Haydn enjoyed aristocratic patronage and associations with high society in both Austria and Britain, Michael chose to focus more on liturgical and religious music. 

10. Napoleon Sent Guards to His House

Even though he was a patriotic Austrian – remember that he wrote their first national anthem and worked for one of the Empire’s foremost princely houses – Haydn’s popularity also extended into France. 

In 1809, when Haydn was ill and dying, Napoleon and his army arrived just outside of Vienna. Napoleon sent a guard of honor to Haydn’s house, and when the fighting subsided, he sent one of his officers to sing an aria of Haydn’s in the composer’s presence.

People throughout Vienna were panicking as Napoleon’s army advanced into the city, and Haydn told the people around him, “Children, don’t be frightened; where Haydn is, nothing can happen to you.” 

11. Mozart’s Requiem Was Played At His Funeral

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was another contemporary of Joseph Haydn’s. Mozart admired his fellow Austrian composer, and the older and more established Haydn returned the sentiment.

Mozart died young with a partially finished Requiem. The Requiem was finished by another composer after his death and was eventually played as Haydn’s funeral mass

12. He Suffered From Polyps

Haydn may have lived a glamorous life in Vienna and London, but it wasn’t all packed concert halls and aristocratic patrons! For much of his life, Haydn suffered from nasal polyps that interfered with his breathing. He underwent recurring operations throughout his life and even visited some of the best surgeons in England during his trips to London. 

Haydn’s letters are full of references to the ways the polyps and operations disrupted his work. A portrait drawing of the composer in London shows him with his mouth slightly open, which suggests that he may have breathed through his mouth because the polyps obstructed his breathing.

13. He Was Sympathetic to His Musicians’ Plight

After a long season working for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, Hadyn’s musicians all wanted to return home to their families. The Prince, however, wanted another symphony. 

As he composed what would become Symphony No. 45, “Farewell,” Joseph Haydn devised a musical means of protest. During the last movement, as the piece gained momentum, Haydn interrupted it and began an Adagio, which was a much slower section. 

One by one, his musicians finished their parts, snuffed out their candles, and left the stage. The Prince let the musicians go home to their families the next day. Even today, this staging is traditional in modern performances of the piece.

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