HAYDN: LIFE AS A SURPRISE SYMPHONY

words CAROLYN SWARTZ
illustration ARIEL R. NELSON

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Forclassical composers of the 18th century, there was something to be said for steady, salaried employment. To be sure, freelancing offered greater personal and artistic liberty. But then, as now, independence came at a price: financial uncertainty and the continual stress of having to curry favor with multiple patrons.

Mozart and Beethoven chose freedom throughout their entire careers. Handel and Haydn chose the safer route. Each committed to long-term court positions, in England and in Hungary, respectively. It is tempting to speculate on the reasons why.

Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, who grew up in musically literate families (with parents who, for better or worse, nurtured their sons' musical development), Handel and Haydn matured against much stiffer odds. Handel's father tried to thwart his son's passion for music. But because his father was also a well-to-do lawyer, the young composer left home with the means and sophistication to further his musical education and career.

Josef Haydn’s is an altogether different story. His father was a wheelwright in the small town of Rohrau, Austria. Although untrained, he played the harp, and as Haydn later put it, had "an innate love for music." 

At a very early age, young Haydn displayed a remarkable ability to sing back the notes of any music he heard. Recognizing talent, his father despaired of the lack of opportunity in Rohrau for his son. So, when Johann Mathias Franck—a relative and the headmaster of a school in Hainburg—offered to take the boy to educate him "in the basics of music and other subjects," the elder Haydn agreed. Young Josef then left home before the age of six.

By all standards, Franck was an unfit headmaster and an even worse guardian. Haydn later recalled that in Hainburg he had received "more thrashing than food," his constant state of hunger compounded by the humiliation of filthy, threadbare clothing. Still, he made rapid progress in violin and harpsichord, and distinguished himself in choir with his "small but pleasing voice." Barely two years later, that voice caught the attention of Georg Reutter, the Imperial Kapellmeister of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, who recruited him for his choir.

Over the next nine years, Haydn got little non-musical education, while suffering living conditions no better than at Hainburg. Years later, he would describe how the famished young St. Stephens choristers looked forward to performing in aristocratic homes, where they could help themselves to the refreshments set out for guests. But with St. Stephen's Cathedral being a center for music, young Haydn got to take in the works of visiting contemporary composers.

At around sixteen, Haydn faced a turning point. His voice broke; his soprano days were over. After a performance, the Empress Maria Theresa commented that he “sang like a crow.” Ever resourceful, Reutter proposed a surgical “solution.” Haydn's father may have stepped in to prevent it. But according to the author David Dubal, the nascent composer was “already susceptible to the charms of women" and refused the operation himself. The upshot? Haydn was summarily booted out of the school.

A brief period of homelessness followed. Haydn spent at least one night on a park bench before a singer acquaintance invited him to share his cramped garret quarters, together with his wife and child. With at least a temporary roof over his head, Haydn sought and found work as a freelance musician. He sang in choirs and worked as a street musician. He played violin in small orchestras for balls and weddings and baptisms, while giving music lessons to children. He also became a valet/accompanist to the Italian composer Nicola Porpora, who taught him the fundamentals of composition.

But the ups and downs of freelancing sometimes forced Haydn to use his wiles to get by. When rebuffed at a church choir audition in the town of Mariazell (before he even got a chance to sing), he took matters into his own hands. When the service began, he boldly made his way to the choir loft and sang (he later recalled) “in a voice so beautiful [that] all held their breath to listen." After the service, the choirmaster apologized and invited Haydn to stay and work for a week.

With coins in his pocket, Haydn also began to write: string quartets and his first opera. And, as he got his works performed, he was building a reputation that brought offers of long-term employment. 

Given the deprivations of his youth, it's not surprising that Haydn found relief in full employment. That assured he would never again suffer hunger or homelessness from poverty or a lack of stature. His timing was great, as musical influence shifted from the Church to the culturally elite aristocracy with its new status symbol of a permanent orchestra, on site and on call, for the entertainment of family and guests.

In his first position as music director for Count Morzin in today's Czech Republic, Haydn wrote his first symphonies. A few years later, while still in his twenties, he became Vice Kapellmeister at the Esterházy palace in Eisenstadt. "There it is my desire to live and die," he said. Indeed, he went on to become Kapellmeister), serving a succession of Esterházy princes over a period of thirty years.

Haydn's talents flourished at Eisenstadt, which gave him a reliable group of good musicians not only to perform with but also to try out new works. "I could improve, alter, make additions and omissions, and be as bold as I pleased," he wrote. Leveraging this stable base, Haydn experimented with new forms of musical expression in string quartets, cantatas, church music, operas, and larger symphonies. 

Throughout his long career, Haydn was careful never to inflict on others the humiliations he himself had endured.

“From all accounts, Haydn was a wonderful person to work for,” says Aisslinn Nosky, concertmaster of Boston's Handel + Haydn Society and a frequent guest artist with the American Classical Orchestra. “There are lots of records of him advocating for his orchestra, for resources from the Esterházy management; and intervening to help his musicians get out of trouble when they misbehaved on the estate."

In turn, these musicians regarded him as a father figure, “Papa Haydn” becoming a touching honorific for a man who had (in his unhappy marriage) no children of his own.

Still, Haydn—like all great composers—had a healthy ego. He once told a friend that, next to his recent opera La fedeltà premiata! “nothing comparable has yet been heard in Paris, not even in Vienna.” He had many friends, including the much younger Mozart—whose genius he recognized and whose admiration was returned in kind. 

In 1785, Mozart dedicated an edition of six string quartets to his older friend. Haydn was therefore devastated by Mozart’s early death—still bursting into tears some fifteen years later at the mere mention of his name. And while he was known for his robust sense of humor, even weaving jokes into his music (Symphony No. 91, known as "The ‘Surprise’ Symphony," for one), it is thought that he suffered from depression later in life.

In his many years of service at Esterházy, Haydn never saw himself as subservient. Over time, he negotiated privileges of travel, time off, and independence in pursuing income—generating music publishing contracts. He drove a hard bargain, and he may even have been guilty of selling the same work to different publishers several times over.

After the 1790 death of Nikolaus Esterházy, Haydn became a free agent. He described his reaction to this new-found state in a letter to his friend, Mme Genzinger: "This little bit of freedom, how sweet it tastes! I had a good prince, but at times I was forced to be dependent on base souls. I often sighed for release; now I have it in some measure.”

Following great success in England, Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795. By then, the "father of instrumental music," who laid the foundations for the symphony, concerto, and sonata forms, was a rich man—beholden to no one. Leveraging his wealth and independence, he went on to create some of his greatest and most personal music, notably two oratorios: The Creation (1798), a testament of the lifelong strength of his faith; and The Seasons (1801), exploring the cycles of nature and human life.

Sources: Haydn and his World, ed. Elaine Sisman, Princeton University Press; Haydn's 'Farewell' Symphony and the Classical Style, by James Webster, Cambridge University Press, Haydn, by J. Cuthbert Hadden (Project Gutenberg); The Classical Era, ed. by Neal Zaslaw, Macmillan; The Essential Canon of Classical Music, by David Dubal, Amazon.

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Story courtesy of The American Classical Orchestra (ACO): Described by the New York Times as a “mainstay” of New York City’s music scene,The American Classical Orchestra (ACO) is devoted to preserving the great music of the
17th, 18th, and 19th century, Led by its founder, Maestro Thomas Crawford, ACO’s world-class musicians, playing on period instruments and using historical performance techniques, invite listeners into the sound world of
the great composers.

aconyc.org

Tom Crawford and guest soloist Aisslinn Nosky prepare for the ACO’s performance of Haydn‘s Sinfonia Concertante at Lincoln Center on November 17, 2018.

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