Josef Haydn by Frederic S. Law

by Frederic S. Law

 haydnThe children of the poor mature early. Joseph Haydn, born March 31, 1732, in the little village of Rabrau, on the border line between Austria and Hungary, was the son of a poor wheelwright whose wife had been cook for the local magnate of the village. The second born of a family of twelve, he was pushed from the parental nest at the age of six to seek his fortune and taken to the neighboring village of Hainburg by a distant cousin for musical training. Spare the rod and spoil the child was then the leading principle in education – and when the rod was not convenient the preceptor’s hand could always be relied upon for regenerative cuffs and blows. Deprived of a mother’s care, dirty and neglected, wearing a wig for the doubtful office of concealing a grimy head, he got more floggings that victuals, as he himself said in later years. Still, the tiny musician never thought of complaining, but struggled valiantly with the duties of his calling; learned to sing at sight in a sweet childish voice, gained some skill in “aying most of the instruments in common use, and was boy enough to show himself a notable adept in beating the drum, an accomplishment which he turned to good stead in many of the works of his mature years.”

When, after two years of this strenuous life, George Reutter, kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s in Vienna, looking for voices for his choir, offered to take him as one of his choristers, it seemed almost too good to be true to the hard-worked little fellow. The story goes that Reutter asked the child whether he could trill. “Why, even my teacher cannot do that!” exclaimed the boy in surprise.

“Listen to me”, returned Reutter and illustrated the desired embellishment; explained the rapid alternation of the two tones, the vibration of the palate, and on the second trial the youthful singer imitated him perfectly. The kapellmeister was so pleased with his pupil’s readiness that he gave him a plate of fine cherries which had been brought for his own especial delectation. One story says that he bestowed a seventeen kreutzer piece on the lad – but I like to think that the cherries were his reward; the emptying of that plate of fair red fruit must have meant too much to the half starved urchin for one to give it up willingly. Let us hope that he got the money, too, and that he spent it forthwith to further fill his little stomach.

Hard Work At School

His life in the Cantorei, the parish school for choristers in Vienna, was hardly an improvement on that in Hainburg. It was one of constant labor; there were two daily choral services in the cathedral, and at festival seasons the singers were on duty almost continuously; food was no more abundant – his growing appetite seldom knew what it was to be fully satisfied; his musical instruction was irregular and far from thorough, and what he learned was more from example than by precept, yet this did not deter him from putting down his thoughts on paper in the most ambitious forms, childlike, thinking that if he filled his music paper with notes he was doing all that could be required.

A Boyish Prank

As he approached his sixteenth year the voice that had been mainstay of his position began to fail; his solos were so uncertain that the empress, Maria Theresa, remarked disparagingly to the director that “young Haydn was as hoarse as a crow”. It was a case of “The king is dead, long live the king!” for at the next festival the solo parts were allotted to his brother Michael, five years his junior, who had joined him three years before at the Cantorei. Joseph’s cracked voice now made him useless as a singer and Reutter only watched for an opportunity to get rid of him. This came through a boyish prank, occasioned by the tempting conjunction of the possession of a pair of new scissors and a seat behind a fellow chorister who wore his hair in a pigtail. Haydn was fond of practical jokes; he could not resist the temptation, gave a clip – and the braid lay on the floor behind his startled companion. He was severely punished and turned into the streets of Vienna at the age of seventeen to make his own way as best he might.

Earns His Own Living

Happy it is that the poor have compassion on the poor. Haydn found it so, for a musician only a degree or two better off than he offered him shelter in a garret which he occupied with his wife and child. There the ex-choir boy did everything in his power to earn a few pence – sang in churches, arranged music for various instruments, played at balls and parties and even on the street, when occasion offered. He must have made friends, for a well to do tradesman, Buchholz by name – he deserves to be remembered – loaned him a hundred and fifty florins. This enabled him to command the luxuries of a garret to himself, and a worm eaten spinct of his own. Under the leaky roof, which impartially admitted snows of winter and the rains of summer, the youth studied and practiced, too happy in his music to envy the lot of kings – as he said in later years.

A Bit of Descriptive Music

During his service under Porpora, referred to in other articles in this issue, Haydn made the acquaintance of a comedian, Felix Kurz, who wished him to write some descriptive music for a pantomime in which he was to appear. The actor had the young composer come to his house and there, extended on two chairs, he went through the motions of a man swimming for his life while Haydn endeavored to give a musical representation of the ocean on the piano. All went smoothly so long as the sea was supposed to be calm, but when the pantomimist wanted a storm he was unable to satisfy him. After a number of unsuccessful attempts the musician, who had never seen the ocean, with an impatient exclamation threw out both hands angrily to each end of the instrument and brought them together in the middle, making two rapid and discordant glissando’s in contrary motion.

“That’s it! That’s it!” cried his patron, jumping up and embracing him in his delight at securing the desired effect. Many years later, in 1791, when Haydn saw the ocean for the first time, in crossing the Straits of Dover on his journey to England, as the vessel ran into a gale he said that he often smiled to himself as he thought of the contrast between his imaginary storm and the reality.

A Settled Position

In the meantime he continued to gain friends through whom he secured pupils; his first quartets, published at the age of twenty, won him the distinction of being bitterly attacked for their unpardonable innovations by the pedants of the day. When he was twenty-nine he married – not a false step in itself, but a most unfortunate one for him when we consider the character of his wife. His wife was three years older than he; a shrew, a vixen, a bigot of the worst type. Her amiable nature may be inferred from the circumstance that once in writing to him for money to buy  a house she declared that its chief attraction in her eyes was that it would be such a charming retreat for her during her widowhood! It is gratifying to know that he did in the end buy the house and live in it himself as a widower, outliving his termagant wife by nine years.

Soon after his marriage he was engaged as kapellmeister by the Prince Exterhaz, who was a patron of music on a large and magnificent scale. In his palace at Eisenstadt, in Hungary, he maintained an orchestra, a chorus and soloists, all utilized for performances in concerts, church and opera. The Prince had been pleased by some of Haydn’s music which he had heard, and ordered his engagement without seeing him. The first time a symphony by the young composer was played before him he was summoned to his master’s presence. “So this is the Moor’s music?” the latter said,
measuring the poorly dressed, undersized and swarthy Haydn from head to foot. “But don’t let me see you again in such pitiful trim. Get a new coat and wig, put on buckles and a collar, see that you have red heels to your shoes – high, so that your stature may correspond to your intelligence”.

How the English Appreciated Haydn

In 1791 he visited London under an engagement with the English manager, Salomon, to produce a large number of new compositions in England. Like Handel, he was overwhelmed with the great size and luxury of the English capital. He heard the children sing at the Foundling Asylum and shed tears. He wrote in his diary: “No music has ever moved me so much as this innocent piece”, referring to a chant they sang.

The University of Oxford bestowed the degree of Doctor of Music upon Haydn. He must have looked more like a “Moor” than ever in his doctor’s gown on the occasion of  his investiture as he lifted the cream colored and cherry silk in his hands and exclaimed in English, “I thank you!” He wore this gorgeous costume for three days and wrote in his diary, “I only wish my friends in Vienna could have seen me.” He was wont to say that he became famous in Germany only after he had been in England. His musical contribution for the degree consisted of the celebrated Canon cancricans, a tre (Crab canon – so called from its being sung both backward and forward – for three voices);

After being sung forward and backward it is to be inverted and sung similarly, then Da Capo and finish.

Some Tests

One who knows Haydn’s music will not need to be told that he had a keen sense of humor. In 1794, on his second journey to England, which was even more successful than his first, he was asked his occupation by a custom house official and proudly replied, “Tonkunstler” (tone artist). “Oh, yes”, returned the man with an air of perfect comprehension, “potter” (Thonkunstler). Haydn was so much amused that he fell in with the misconception. “That’s it!” he exclaimed, “and this is my partner”, indicating his faithful servant, Johann Elssler, who was no doubt scandalized at this aspersion on his revered master. Elssler deserves mention for his devotion to the composer, whom he had served since boyhood, first a copyist and later as servant. Haydn left him a bequest of 6000 florins and he survived his master many years. It is related of him that he used to pause with the censer in his hand before Haydn’s portrait as though it was an altar.

Not so well known is the musical jest Haydn allowed himself in setting the response to the Eighth Commandment to a theme which he took from Bach – the subject of the fugue in C sharp minor from the first book of “The Well Tempered Clavichord”.

The tests of the two great works of his old age, “The Creation” and “The Seasons” were taken from English sources; the first from Milton, the second from Thomson. The weak rhymes of “The Creation” have but little in common with the inspired lines of “Paradise Lost”, which is hardly to be wondered at, since they were translated from English into German and then from German into English. Apropos of the first performance of “The Creation” in London in 1800, by mischance the music arrived only a week before the time announced. However, the parts were copied, chorus and soloists studied diligently, and it came off at the time appointed. When the conductor was complimented on the rapid preparation of the work, he remarked, “But, after all, it is not the first time that the creation has been consummated in six days!”

Burden of Age

Haydn complained that the composition of “The Seasons” at his advanced age – he was sixty-nine – gave him the finishing stroke. “Formerly ideas came to me”, he said. “Now I am obliged to seek for them”. The infirmities of old age weighed heavily on him; he suffered from headaches and deafness, and was oppressed by two fears – of illness and poverty.

Sir Joshua Reynolds was once commissioned to paint a portrait of Haydn, the celebrated composer. Haydn went to the residence of the painter and gave him a sitting, but soon grew tired. Sir Joshua would not paint a man of such genius with a stupid countenance, and adjourned the sitting. The same weariness and want of expression occurring at the next attempt, Sir Joshua communicated the circumstance to the commissioning Prince, who contrived a stratagem. He sent to the painter’s house a pretty German girl in the service of the Queen. Haydn took his seat for the third time, and as soon as the conversation began to lag a curtain rose, and the fair German addressed him in his native tongue with a compliment. Haydn, delighted, overwhelmed the enchantress with questions, his countenance recovered its animation, and Sir Joshua rapidly and successfully seized its traits.

He shrank from being represented as an old man, and quarreled with an artist who painted his portrait when he was sixty-nine for having made his age apparent. “If I was Haydn when I was forty,” he exclaimed, “why should you transmit me to posterity as a Haydn of seventy-eight?” Nevertheless he was amused by a false report of his death in Paris, which led to a mass being celebrated in his memory. “If these gentlemen had given me notice,” he said, “I should have gone myself to beat the time to this fine mass they have had performed for me.”

His last days were disturbed by war. In the spring of 1809 Vienna was besieged and finally occupied by the French troops, but it is pleasant to know that the last visit he received was from a French officer, who sang the air from “The Creation”, “In Native Worth”, so beautifully for him that the composer, then on his deathbed, burst into tears and embraced him warmly. A few days later, on May 31st, he passed away from the world which he had so long brightened and cheered by his art, at the age of seventy-seven.