Franz Joseph Haydn – Lessons from Haydn’s Life

April 1, 1732 to May 31, 1809

Lessons From Haydn’s Life

by Henry T. Finck

haydnThe genealogy of genius is one of the puzzles of modern science. Why should three women whose humble occupation was the cooking of meals three times a day have given birth to three of the world’s greatest musical geniuses – Beethoven, Schubert, and Haydn?

We do not know; we only know that genius, like meteors, appears when and where it chooses. But is there not comfort in this very circumstance? One of the lessons we may learn from the life of Haydn, as from that of Schubert or Beethoven, is that a musician may rise to the top although he has no lineage of distinguished or intellectual ancestors.

Early Environment

Franz Joseph Haydn’s father and grandfather were wheelwrights; his great grandfather, a lackey. His father had some gift for music, but not enough to make anyone dream he would beget a son who would rank with the great masters. He sang’ so did his wife; and their boy had the advantage of being brought up in a musical atmosphere – an indispensable condition to the growth of musical genius. Like the other great masters, Josef Haydn had the imitative faculty strongly developed from his childhood, and used to amuse himself by taking two sticks of wood to represent violin and bow and thus imitating the playing of his schoolmaster.

This trick brought him luck. While at it one day he was observed by a distant relative named Frank, to whom it naturally suggested the idea that the boy might be a born musician. His home was at Hainburg, where he was a schoolmaster, and he succeeded in persuading Josef’s parent to let him take their son along, for regular instruction. He was very strict and kept the boy hard at work; but later in life Haydn felt grateful for this, though, as he said, he “used to get more flogging than food”. The main thing was that he had plenty of opportunity, in church, in school, and elsewhere, to hear music, as well as to practice it.

Two lessons which force themselves on our attention at this stage of Haydn’s life are that poverty need not be an impediment to success, and that hard work is indispensable to it. He was poor as a church mouse throughout his childhood and youth, yet he never ceased being busy as a beaver. During the two years – from his sixth to his eighth – that he remained with Frankh he was, as he himself said afterward, “a regular urchin”, unavoidable untidy; but none the less he tended to his work, playing a little on the violin and the clavier, and singing masses in the church choir. Then came a change. A Viennese composer and conductor named Reutter happened to hear the boy sing and promptly offered him a place as chorister in St. Stephens, at the Austrian capital. The offer was, of course, accepted joyfully, with the consent of the parents.

A Choir Boy in Vienna

At the St. Stephen’s Cantorei, as he tells us, beside the regular studies, which included Latin, writing, arithmetic, and religion, he learned “singing, the clavier, and the violin from good masters”. He also tried to compose, though no one had taught him how to begin. His eagerness for opportunities to learn was illustrated strikingly when his father sent him a few florins for a new suit of clothes, which the boy promptly used to buy some music for his delectation and study.

His voice, at this time, was so beautiful that it aroused the special attention of the Imperial family; but the day came when it began to break and sound more “like the crowing of a cock”, as the Empress remarked jocosely; and not long afterward young Josef took the opportunity of trying the edge of a new pair of scissors by cutting off the pigtail of one of this schoolmates. This was interesting as a premonition of the fun – the animal spirits and humor – which afterwards came to distinguish much of Haydn’s music’ but for the time being it was rather a serious matter, for it hastened his discharge from the Cantorei, after a caning on the hand, from the humiliation of which he begged in vain to be excused.

Educating Himself

Greater humiliations, however, awaited him. He was thrown on the world, a youth of seventeen, with no way of supporting himself except by giving music lessons at two florins ($10) a month, and by singing or playing at weddings and baptisms for a few pennies. Luckily, a kind acquaintance lent him money enough to rent a room in an attic as well as a cheap, worm eaten old clavier. On this he played and composed, to his heart’s content, and was so happy, as he used to relate when in a reminiscent mood, that he did not envy a king.

When I wrote he was as busy as a beaver I should have said busy as a bee; for, like a bee, he sucked the sweetness out of the works of his predecessors and thus stored up honey for his own use. He was particularly delighted with the sonatas of Emanuel Bach, which he mastered more thoroughly than anyone else. He also pored over the theoretical works of Fux and others. Indeed, he learned so much more by himself than from teachers that he may practically be classed among the self taught composers; and herein, surely, lies a most encouraging lesson for those who, living remote from musical centers, fancy themselves cut off from the opportunity to develop their talent.

With Porpora

Another lesson. Medieval ballads and romances tell us of the humiliations to which the Knights were willing to subject themselves to win the favor of a fair lady. Just so did Haydn temporarily debase himself for the sake of serving his muse. He cleaned the clothes and blackened the shoes of a famous musician that he might benefit by his company, his instruction, and his travels. This musician was Porpora, the most famous teacher of his time. He invited Haydn to act as his accompanist, and, in return, for this and the menial service referred to, gave him lessons. While with him, Haydn also had the advantage of meeting Gluck, Dittersdorf, and other prominent musicians of the time. Dittersdorf was, in his day, considered a greater master than Mozart.

His Married Life

Gradually, Haydn made his way in Vienna. In 1759 he was appointed private composer to Count Morzin, and conductor of his small orchestra. His salary was only about $100 a year, but that seemed to him enough for two; at any rate, he wanted to marry the younger daughter of a wig maker. She, however, chose a convent, and Haydn, Jacob-like, was persuaded to marry her sister. This proved to be the tragedy of his life – the only tragedy, but one which lasted longer than a Chinese play. She turned out a perfect calamity – in the words of C.F. Pohl, she as a “regular Xantippe – heartless, unsociable, quarrelsome, extravagant, and bigoted”. She cared not a straw whether her husband was an artist or a shoemaker. She tore up valuable manuscripts to make curl papers. Yet, so imperturbable was Haydn’s good humor, that even this domestic affliction, which lasted forty years, did not unbalance him. “Anyone can see by the look of me that I am a good natured sort of fellow”, he used to say. And thus even this episode teaches a lesson – how to be happy though unhappily married!

Period of Development

By way of compensation for his conjugal misfit, Haydn was so very fortunate as to secure an engagement as kapellmeister of the private orchestra of Count Paul Anton Esterhazy, who had heard one of his symphonies at Morzin’s Palace. The Count lived at Eisenstadt, in Hungary, which thus became Haydn’s home from 1761 to 1769, when Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy, who succeeded Paul Anton in 1762, moved with his artists into his new palace at Suttor, in Bohemia. This palace, erected at a cost of 11,000,000 florins, was one of the wonders of the time, with its parks, greenhouses, grottoes and temples, and its theatre, at which often performances were given better than those that could be heard in Vienna.

Here Haydn had, beside a number of good Italian singers, an orchestra of thirty selected players, who were entirely at his disposal. What this meat to him he himself succinctly indicated in these words; “My Prince was always satisfied with my works; I not only had the encouragement of constant approval, but as a conductor of an orchestra I could make experiments, observe what produces effect and what weakened it, and was thus in a position to improve, alter, make additions or omissions, and be as bold as I pleased; I was cut off from the world, there was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to be original.”

Here we have the chief lesson from Haydn’s life. He might have become a great composer under other conditions, too, but it is not likely that he would have been able to do as much as he did to develop the modern symphony and chamber music had he not had that orchestra laboratory, so to speak, at Esterhaz, for three decades, for making his musical experiments. If we now ask why it is that in America, for example, we have had so many more good songs written than orchestra pieces, the answer readily suggest itself; Because our composers have not been so lucky as Haydn was to own their own orchestras for making experiments – for trying, changing, improving. A song is easily tried at the piano, whereas an orchestral rehearsal costs $500. Edward MacDowell often spoke of the desirability of having an orchestra maintained by a millionaire, which would be willing to play manuscript pieces to encourage the composers, and for the sole benefit. Perhaps some day we shall have an Esterhazy. Personally, I do not see why Mr. Carnegie should not do such a thing instead of erecting so many hundreds of libraries. For, is it not nobler to encourage and stimulate genius than to provide reading matter for the multitude?

So far as Haydn was concerned there was, however, a drawback to the Esterhazy arrangement to which Sir Hubert Parry has called attention. At the time when Haydn began to write symphonies for the Count’s orchestra, these compositions were not intended for large concert halls, but only for noblemen’s houses, and were, therefore, on a much smaller scale than the symphonic works of later times. “Composers did not exert themselves much to put poetical or elevated thoughts into them, or to make them deeply impressive in any way, but aimed at an agreeable and easy style which was most likely to please their aristocratic patrons.”

The London Period

Haydn was no exception; he wrote most of his works with an eye on the Count, and with no thought of the world at large, hence so many of them are now obsolete. A change fortunately came in time. In 1790 Prince Nicolaus died and the orchestra was disbanded. Haydn moved to Vienna and at last felt at liberty to accept an engagement to appear in London. He had to good sense to realize that in the symphonies he had promised to write for that city he was to address an audience of a much broader and more mixed character, the result being, in the words of Parry, that “the symphonies he wrote for the English public have almost as completely eclipsed all his previous works of the kind as those had in their turn surpassed the productions of all the earlier writers of symphonies. When any of his symphonies are performed nowadays it is almost always one of the last twelve”.

Twice did Haydn visit London – in 1790 and 1794 – and the reception he got there opened the eyes of his countrymen to the fact that their prophet had not been sufficiently honored at home. The man who in his youth had brushed the clothes and blacked the shoes of a music teacher, and who subsequently, as kapellmeister at Esterhaz, had not ranked much above menials, was in England treated as a genius should be treated. Not only were his concerts enormously successful, but the aristocracy, beginning with the king, were proud to associate with him. Before he returned to Austria Count Harrach erected a monument to him at Rohrau, where he (Haydn) had seen the light of the world on April 1, 1732; and thenceforth he was one of the musical idols of Vienna.

His Last Days

The last of his great works, “The Creation” and “The Seasons”, were received as they deserved to be, and Haydn was so wealthy in his last years that he was able to liberally repay the families of those who in his early struggles had helped him. He died on May 31, 1809 – the same year in which Mendelssohn and Chopin were born, as if to compensate for his loss.

There is one more lesson that obtrudes itself in surveying the life of Joseph Haydn. He wrote too much – 150 symphonies alone! – and that is the chief reason, paradoxical as it may seem, why we so seldom now see his name on a program. The best is smothered in the mass of the merely good or mediocre. Schopenhauer has well said that those would would write for posterity should exclude every superfluous line and weight every word to see if there is room for it in the trunk that is to make the long journey. But there is a remedy. We can winnow the chaff from the wheat – and there are bushels of wheat in the granary of Josef Haydn.