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Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau, near Vienna, on 31st March 1732. His father was a wheelright and the family were relatively poor. Although Haydn was not a child prodigy like Mozart, he was musically gifted at a young age. His father was a lover of music but not in a position to pay for music lessons. However, Haydn received some instruction in singing and musical instruments from a cousin, and when he was eight his singing was heard by the organist of Saint Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, who recruited him for the cathedral choir. Thus Haydn gained a place in the choir school where he received a general education and music lessons. His voice broke at seventeen and he had to leave the school and make his own way in life. He was clearly an enterprising lad, for having borrowed some money, he bought a second hand clavier, rented space in Vienna and set up as teacher. He played the violin at dances and worked as an accompanist at the academy of the noted Italian singing master and composer, Nicola Porpora. With a struggle he made a living and he also managed to study counterpoint, mostly without the benefit of a regular teacher, although he did take occasional lessons with Porpora.
In 1760 Haydn married Anne Marie Keller, a wigmaker's daughter, on the rebound from a romance with her sister who had chosen to be a nun. (Subsequently to the romance.) Although he remained with Anne until her death in 1780, the marriage was in name only, for there was no affection on either side, and Haydn sought and received affection elsewhere. Generally Haydn was known as a man who was thoughtful towards others, and this view contrasts oddly with some accounts of his rough treatment of his wife. There were no children.
In 1759, through contacts established while teaching and working freelance, Haydn obtained employment as musical director for Count Ferdinand Maximilian von Morzin, conducting the orchestra and composing music. It was during this period that he composed his first Symphony, a work which he later recognised as immature. Whilst working for Count von Morzin, he came to the attention of Prince Pál Antal Esterházy, who appointed him assistant music director in 1761. Haydn was clearly a high-flyer, because he was promoted to full musical director (Kapellmeister) in 1762. In those times, the Esterházy family was the richest and most powerful in Hungary, and they were great patrons of the arts. Only a year after Haydn took this position, Prince Pál Antal Esterházy died and was succeeded by his brother Prince Miklós Józse Esterházy , who was an ardent and cultivated music lover, and under his direction the musical establishment blossomed at his vast summer residence, Esterháza. As Kapellmeister, Haydn was expected to compose music, to rehearse and conduct performances his own music and the works of other composers, to coach singers, to maintain the instrument collection and music library, to perform as organist or violinist if needed, and to control the musicians in his charge! By all accounts Haydn was an agreeable man and was generally popular with his peers, and these qualities, as well as his musical genius, must account for his long tenure as Kappelmeister for the Esterházy family from 1762 until 1790.
Haydn's burden of work at Esterháza was heavy and involved much more than pure composition, but the secluded environment at the palace shielded him from the outside world and encouraged his great creativity. Furthermore there was a 400 seat concert hall and a permanent orchestra to help him develop his music, and his master Miklós demanded a constant flow of works in all genres. Because Haydn was isolated to some extent from the wider musical fraternity, he created an original style. Later in life he made the remark that "there was no one there to confuse me, so I was forced to become original". A commonly held view is that Haydn's music is simplistic, when compared with his successor Mozart, but some authorities say that in some respects he was more radical than his young friend. For example he sometimes used phrases lasting three, five, seven, and nine bars, whereas Mozart never deviated from the four and eight bar phrase, which was the convention in 18th Century music. Although Haydn travelled little during his time as Kapellmeister, his music reached beyond the guests at Esterháza to a far wider audience because of the terms of a contract signed in 1779 which gave him the freedom to sell his music to publishers and to accept commissions.
When Miklós Esterházy died in 1790 and succeeded by his son Anton, the great musical tradition at Esterháza came to an end, and the court musicians were made redundant. Haydn kept his Kapellmeister title and was paid a salary, but was free to look further afield for work. Haydn was in a position to accept when the impresario J.P. Salomon invited him to compose and direct in England in 1791, and a new phase of his creative work began. On that occasion he stayed for eighteen months and he returned for a further period in 1794. During these visits he wrote his twelve London symphonies and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. He was extremely popular in England and was received at court by royalty.
Haydn had a great sense of humour. Well known examples of musical jokes occur in his Symphony No. 94, 'the Surprise' and his Symphony No. 45 'the Farewell'. In the Surprise Symphony a sudden fortissimo breaks the peacefulness of the slow movement and it has been suggested that Haydn was aiming to wake up sleeping members of the audience. The Farewell Symphony is arranged so that instrumentalists can progressively leave the orchestra. It is believed this was a hint to Prince Miklós that orchestra members were anxious to have a break from work and see their families. Another less substantiated story is that Haydn conducted his Symphony No. 101, 'the Clock' in time to a noisy clock in the auditorium. The slow movement of this symphony is thought to simulate the rhythm of a clock.
With the succession of Prince Miklós II in 1795, music returned to Esterháza. Haydn had maintained ties with the Esterházy family and he was re-employed and allowed to concentrate on composition. In his later years Haydn's creative genius was still strong; he turned to writing masses and composed his great oratorios, 'The Creation' (1798) and 'The Seasons' (1801). From this period also comes his 'Emperor's Hymn' (1797), which later became the Austrian national anthem. He died on the 31st May 1809, the year Napoleon took Vienna.
Undoubtedly the good fortune of patronage from the nobility gave Haydn the space to produce great works, but his success was a mainly due to his early enterprising spirit, his hard work and his great musical ability. In the classical period (circa 1775 to 1825) the public were generally not content to keep listening to the same music, and to survive in their profession composers were required to keep producing new material. (Rather like the modern popular music scene!) Haydn responded to this demand with an enormous output of work.