We mark the death, on May 31, 1809 – 212 years ago today – of the incomparable Joseph Haydn, at his home in Vienna at Kleine Steingasse 73 (today, the address is Haydngasse 19). At the time of his death, he was 77 years old and was, without any doubt, the most popular and beloved composer in the Western world.
Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732 in the Austrian town of Rohrau. He was as self-made a person as any we’ll ever meet. A choirboy at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, he was booted out onto the mean streets of Vienna when his voice changed at the age of 16 and left entirely to his own devices. He subsisted in a Viennese garret, giving lessons and playing the violin in dance bands while he taught himself to compose. To indulge the cliché, the young dude attended the school of hard knocks and managed to graduate summa cum laude.
He slowly climbed the Viennese musical ladder and in 1761 – at the age of 29 – took up a position with the Esterházy family, a fabulously wealthy family of Hungarian nobles. His position was that of Vice-Kapellmeister – assistant music director – of the Esterhazy musical establishment. Assistant or no, Haydn directed most of the musical activities for the court, as the elderly Kapellmeister Gregor Warner was responsible only for the court’s church music. Warner died in 1766, at which point Haydn was promoted to the top spot, Kapellmeister. He remained the Esterházy Kapellmeister until 1790.
It was while working for the Esterházys and still in his thirties that Haydn was given the nickname of “Papa” by the grateful musicians who worked for him. They called him “Papa” not because he was “old” or “conservative” but because he was a good, kind, and fair-minded boss who made the needs of his musicians a top priority.
But more than just a good man, the short, hook-nosed, pock-marked, ever-smiling, ever-genial Haydn also turned out to be one of the most stunningly original and exquisitely talented composers to ever grace our planet. For all intents-and-purposes, Haydn did indeed “invent” what today we consider the genres of string quartet (of which he composed 68) and symphony (of which he composed at least 104!). But even more than that, Haydn’s personal musical voice, his personal musical style – his particular blend of humor and seriousness, of intellect and emotion – has come to be known by the generic designation as the “Viennese Classical style.” It is a tribute to the originality, technical brilliance, and sheer number of Haydn’s compositions that they were and remain the standard by which we measure all the other music of his time.
He was a man of great physical energy and endless curiosity, although when he left the full-time employ of the Esterházy family in 1790, it was assumed that the 58-year-old Haydn, no spring chicken by the standards of the day, would take a quiet retirement.
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