Haydn: 8 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of The Creation

Mozart called him "Papa" Haydn... Today, he is known as the "father" of the quartet and the symphony: here are 8 (little) things to know about one of the most influential composers in the history of classical music.

Haydn: 8 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of The Creation
Haydn: 8 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of The Creation, © Getty / DEA PICTURE LIBRARY

Joseph Haydn may have been (slightly) overshadowed by his contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven. And yet! During the 18th century, Joseph Haydn was the most admired musician of his time. His symphonies were performed continuously, and his string quartets were praised by all.

In order to be recognised as the principal ambassador of Viennese classical music, Haydn overcame countless obstacles, often working fiercely for hours, if not days on end. Yet, as Stendhal wrote: "In composing music, he sought rather his own gratification, than to furnish himself with the means of acquiring celebrity."

The years of hardship

Born on 31 March 1732 in Rohrau, in Austria, Joseph Haydn was the second of twelve children. Shortly after studying music with one of his uncles, the young Joseph was employed as a chorister at the Stephansdom cathedral in Vienna.

Unfortunately, Haydn matured quickly and lost his choirboy voice: at only 17, he found himself alone in the streets of Vienna, in search of new accomodation. He played the violin and the organ here and there, gave regular music lessons, before finally finding employment for the composer Nicola Porpora

Between various household tasks, the now aged Italian composer, famous for his ill-tempered manner, would further the young Haydn's musical education, developing his talents as a composer. Haydn spent his nights studying the great treatises of Baroque music, and his days working for the old Italian maestro. 

"Many geniuses are ruined by their having to earn their daily bread, because they have no time to study" Haydn, Autobiographical sketch (1776) 

Esterházy, a gilded cage?

During the 18th century, it was still tradition for a musician to seek the employment of a great Lord or other aristocratic figure. In 1761, Joseph Haydn signed a contract with the rich and powerful Esterházy family, with a beautiful residence in the Austrian Burgenland. 

Haydn spent almost twenty years at the Esterházy palace. Though the social gatherings were grand, the guests prestigious, and the musical means lavish (a permanent orchestra and choir), the workload was just as impressive. Haydn soon began to feel isolated, cut off from the world, despite the fact that his reputation continued to spread and that he received countless commissions.

Palais d'Esterházy, aujourd'hui situé à Fertőd en Hongrie, à la frontière autrichienne.
Palais d'Esterházy, aujourd'hui situé à Fertőd en Hongrie, à la frontière autrichienne. , © AFP / Ian Trower / Robert Harding Premium

Multi-purpose symphonies

In the 1780s, Haydn's symphonies surpassed his own reputation and made it to Paris even before their composer. It was not necessary to invite the maestro in person: the Parisian publishing houses took it into their own hands to reproduce, publish and sell (more or less fraudulently) the works of Joseph Haydn. 

Thus, Haydn's symphonies were those heard by the French public at the Comédie Française, during the interval, during the public performances at the Académie des Beaux Arts, and even during certain ballets premiered at the Académie royale de musique. Haydn's music soon resonated throughout all of Europe, whilst the composer had yet to venture beyond the Esterházy palace… 

Between Mozart and Beethoven

The friendship between Haydn and Mozart is well-documented: the two geniuses appreciated and even admired one another, never hesitating to sing the other's praise. "The greatest composer that I know", declared Haydn about his young friend. As for Mozart, the composer dedicated six of his string quartets to his dear Papa Haydn, as he liked to call him.

Between Haydn and Beethoven, however, the feeling was less mutual. Beethoven met Haydn for the first time in 1790; he then studied under the ageing composer in Vienne. By now Haydn was of a certain age, relatively tired, and often solicited. He was only able, therefore, to dedicate a short amount of time to his new student, and no friendship blossomed from their brief exchanges.

Lettre de Mozart à Haydn (1732-1809) conservée au Musée de Vienne.
Lettre de Mozart à Haydn (1732-1809) conservée au Musée de Vienne. , © Getty / .

Little "Papa Haydn"

Mozart jokingly called his older colleague Papa Haydn in reference to the composer's kindness and thoughtfulness. During his time at Esterházy, the composer is said to have been particularly preoccupied by the fate of the musicians on staff, even becoming their official spokesperson to the princely family.

The anecdote surrounding the "Farewell" Symphony (1772) is a perfect example: during the final adagio movement, the musicians stop playing one by one, and gradually leave the stage. Haydn's message for the prince Nicolas Esterházy was (relatively) clear: the musicians desired a holiday, and this request was finally granted.

His first trip at the age of...58!

Better late than never, certainly thought Haydn to himself when he decided, at the age of 58, to go on his first voyage. Destination London, where he was awaited for years and already described as the Shakespeare of music.

Haydn arrived in London in January 1791, and his success was immediate and unconditional. The composer enjoyed discovering another way of life, more worldly and bustling. As an echo to his two trips to London, he composed twelve symphonies (no.96 to 104), the last of the genre with which he was so frequently associated.

Head in the stars

During his time in London, Haydn met the brilliant astronomer William Herschel. Le composer thus discovered a new passion for the stars and the mysteries of the sky: in 1798, his famous oratorio The Creation was created in reference to Herschel's hypotheses, according to which the universe originated in a huge explosion. 

In the composer's final Viennese home were found various astronomy books and studies. An insatiably curious individual, Haydn also kept in his library other books concerning botany, medicine, philosophy, and even the works of William Shakespeare and Carlo Goldoni... 

The mystery of the missing skull

Joseph Haydn died on 31 May 1809, in Vienne. The Austrian capital was under siege by Napoleon's troops, and the composer's funeral was therefore organised with haste, despite the ongoing love and admiration of his contemporaries. 

In 1820, the Esterházy family suggested that the remains be more suitably honoured, and moved to Eisenstadt, near the palace in which the composer spent much of his life and composed the majority of his works. However, upon opening the composer's coffin, a surprise: the skull was missing!

Only years later, in the early 20th century, was the mystery of Haydn's missing skull finally solved. The composer's head had been subtly taken by two practitioners of phrenology, a popular science during the 18th century. These two researchers hoped to establish a link between the shape of the human skull and a human's intellectual capacities. Unsurprisingly, the cranium of the talented and widely admired Joseph Haydn undoubtedly proved to be the perfect object for such a study... 

Crâne retrouvé de Joseph Haydn et exposé dans l'église d'Eisenstadt (Autriche) en 1954.
Crâne retrouvé de Joseph Haydn et exposé dans l'église d'Eisenstadt (Autriche) en 1954., © AFP / Austrian National Library