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The music of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) is so technically superb, so widely imitated, and so rich in quality and quantity that almost since the moment of its creation it has exemplified the Classical style. More than any other single composer, it was Haydn who created the Classical-era symphony. And his 68 string quartets? They are the standard by which all other Classical string quartets were and are judged. No less an expert than Mozart wrote that it was from Haydn that he had learned how to write quartets.

And yet this gentle, creative dynamo, who penned more than 1,000 works over a 50-year career and remained musically vital well past middle age, is all too often thought of as an aged figure surpassed and overshadowed by Mozart and Beethoven.

A Father, Not a Fossil

Not so, as Professor Robert Greenberg shows. The musicians who worked for Haydn called him “Papa” not because he was a fossil, but because of his unfailing kindness to them in an age when professional musicians were often treated poorly.

In truth, Haydn is one of the most original and influential composers of all time. He was the only musical contemporary whom Mozart admired. You learn from Professor Greenberg about the artistically fruitful friendship that grew between Mozart and Haydn.

He taught Beethoven. You can learn about the more troubled dealings Haydn had with Beethoven—whose Ninth Symphony, nonetheless, would be unimaginable without the influence of Haydn’s Creation, the towering 1798 oratorio in praise of God’s generosity, that crowned Haydn’s career.

The Beauty of The Creation

In the culminating lectures of the series, you’ll learn how The Creation perfectly expresses Haydn’s rich inner world and personality: His childlike wonder, purehearted sensual joy, and genial humor mix seamlessly with profound faith, great nobility of expression, and genuine religious devotion.

In Haydn’s works, the demands of popular entertainment and lofty aesthetic theory blend smoothly. Each piece strikes a new and finely judged balance between limpid accessibility and the integrity of compositional craft.

To know the man behind such works is to see Haydn’s extraordinary achievement not merely as a technical feat or a display of pure talent—though surely these are involved—but as the work of a whole person, a triumph of generosity and the human spirit.

Haydn: A Brief Biography

Haydn was born on March 31, 1732, in an ethnically diverse part of Austria, near the Hungarian border. His music expressed this ethnically diverse environment.

When he was almost six years old, Haydn’s soprano voice attracted his first music teacher, Johann Franck, a school principal and choir director in the town of Hainburg.

Young Haydn was sent off to Franck’s school at that tender age. He was subjected to a rigorous and harsh life (thrashings were common), but he was also exposed to an extraordinary amount of music. He was taught the rudiments of music theory, singing, and keyboard and string playing, for which he remained grateful to Franck for the rest of his life.

At age eight, Haydn’s musical ability attracted the attention of Georg Reutter, choir master at the Cathedral of St. Stephen’s in Vienna, the most important church in the most important city in German-speaking Europe. For the next nine years, as a choirboy at the cathedral, he was exposed to the best music in Europe at that time. He learned to compose slowly and painstakingly through practical experience and hard work.

After his voice broke, Haydn was turned out of St. Stephen’s to fend for himself in the great city of Vienna. He eked out a living by teaching, accompanying, singing, playing the organ and violin, and composing dance music.

In 1758, Haydn hit professional and financial pay dirt. He was hired by Count Morzin to be court music director and composer. With an orchestra at his disposal, it was for Count Morzin that Haydn wrote his first symphonies, among many other works.

Unqualified Musical Success

Haydn’s musical development was an unqualified success, but his marriage to Maria Anna Keller was not. Maria Anna was, we are told, an ugly, quarrelsome, bitter woman who could not have children. Haydn would regret his marriage for the rest of his life, and his ultimate estrangement from his wife led to discreet affairs with women.

Haydn worked hard for the Esterházy family, and the opportunities his position gave him were enormous. At the magnificent palace of Esterháza in the Hungarian countryside, Haydn had the time he needed to develop his craft. The court orchestra played virtually everything he wrote, and his employer, Prince Nicholas Esterházy (“the Magnificent”), who had succeeded his brother Paul Anton, encouraged Haydn to experiment in every genre.

Some critics disliked the mixture of the serious and the comic in Haydn’s music. But as time went on, Haydn acquired an international celebrity that far outweighed any criticism. Among his admirers was the much younger Mozart, for whom Haydn had a mutual regard. The two became great friends. Haydn’s six String Quartets, op. 33, inspired Mozart to write six quartets of his own, and he dedicated them to Haydn.

In 1790, Haydn’s employer Prince Nicholas died, and Haydn found himself free to leave Esterháza. The impresario Johann Peter Salomon took him to London, where Haydn immediately became the toast of the town. For this visit and his subsequent visit in 1794, he wrote his greatest symphonies, the London symphonies.

When he returned to Vienna in 1795, it was a far more “Haydn-friendly” place. A new Esterházy prince, Nicholas II, came into Haydn’s life, and he liked old-style church music. Haydn’s great masterworks of these years are the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons.

After completing The Seasons in April 1801, Haydn’s health began to fail. With characteristic generosity he wrote a will that included everybody from his closest relatives to a shoemaker.

The last great moment of Haydn’s public life occurred on March 27, 1808, when The Creation was performed at the university in Vienna in honor of his 76th birthday. The illustrious audience included the composers Beethoven, Salieri, and Hummel, as well as the highest aristocracy.

Haydn’s audience knew he was approaching his death, and the performance became an almost mystical event. In one touching moment, Princess Esterházy saw Haydn shiver and covered his shoulders with her shawl. Soon other ladies followed suit until he was completely covered.

Haydn never appeared in public again. He died “blissfully and gently” on May 31, 1809.

Works you’ll hear in the lectures are excerpted from:

Symphony no. 45 in F-sharp Minor (Farewell) (1772)
String Quartet in C Major, op. 33, no. 3 (The Bird) (1781)
String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 33, no. 2 (The Joke) (1781)
Symphony no. 92 in G Major (1789)
Symphony no. 94 in G Major (Surprise) (1792)
Symphony no. 102 in B-flat Major (London) (1794)
Symphony no. 104 in D Major (final London symphony) (1795)
Piano Trio in F-sharp Minor (1794)
Trumpet Concerto (1796)
String Quartet, op. 76, no. 3 in C Major (The Emperor) (1797)

Visit Great Masters: Haydn-His Life and Music (The Great Courses) to read more...

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