Joseph Haydn Two Centuries Later

Two hundred years after his death in May 1809, Joseph Haydn remains one of the least acclaimed of the great classical composers. Of course he faces stiff competition for recognition, especially from his immediate contemporaries. His friend twenty-four years his junior, Mozart, continues to engage us, and not only because of a fascination with extraordinary genius. His works, and especially the operas, remain at the heart of the repertory; he makes his characters come alive through music, and the dramatic issues they face seem remarkably close to our own. Haydn’s pupil in Vienna in the early to mid-1790s, Beethoven, has in the minds of some excelled all other composers because his works exemplify the highest aspirations of humanity, relegating composers before him to the status of mere precursors. To make matters worse for Haydn, Beethoven complained about his teaching, and we have been much too prepared to accept only his side of the story. Can we even talk about a great Viennese triumvirate that includes Haydn, who was something of a late bloomer in comparison to his two illustrious contemporaries, from a peasant background, bogged down in the mosquito infested swamps of Eszterháza in the service of an aristocratic patron, unlike Mozart and Beethoven, who broke those bonds? They clearly appeal more to our democratic sensibilities, while Haydn appears on the surface to be stuck in an ancient regime time warp well after most of Europe and America had moved forward.

Aside from what happened at the time, Haydn’s reputation also has to contend with his reception during the 19th and 20th centuries, and neither century treated him very kindly. Mozart suffered a similar fate during the 19th century, which early on preferred new music over the old, and in any event relished works more emotionally engaging than they thought typified the 18th century; only the Piano Concerto in D minor (K466) and Don Giovanni held their ground before the 20th century. Mozart’s other works needed to be revived in the 20th century, and when that revival came, audiences seemed surprised that they had let their enthusiasm lapse. Beethoven needed no such revival, since audiences of the 19th century always felt stirred by his works, and in the 20th century a number of his works have even accompanied some of the great historical events. The British adopted his Fifth Symphony during the darkest years of World War II as the strongest symbol of hope and victory (in fact the opening four-note motif gives us “V” in Morse Code), while the humanitarianism of the Ninth Symphony marked the founding of the European Union. Since the 19th century neglected most of Haydn’s works, with the exception of The Creation in Britain, access to his music lay in almost complete disarray by the early 20th century, with no clear recognition of what made up his output. His popularity during his own time prompted unscrupulous publishers to issue works by lesser composers in his name, and similarly, some 20th-century performers felt the need to alter his works, especially the symphonies, to make them, so they believed, acceptable to audiences accustomed to something more emotionally evocative. Efforts to disentangle this mess have required some very astute archival scholarship; when H. C. Robbins Landon issued his edition of the complete symphonies in the 1960s, the world finally had reliable scores of these works.

Haydn has not become a household name in the way that his celebrated cohorts have, but we do need to pose the question if there could even have been a Mozart or a Beethoven without Haydn. That question runs the risk of relegating him to a figure of historical significance, disengaged from the appeal of the music itself, but I will take the risk since I am convinced that no composer achieved more than Haydn in giving rise to the great repertory of much of the past two centuries. Of course the accomplishments of J. S. Bach and Handel have left us awestruck, and we should not underestimate the bearing they had on the next generation, especially on vocal music, which most of the 18th century considered far superior to instrumental music. When Haydn first took employment as a composer, instrumental music scarcely flickered on the musical horizon, and throughout much of his career, when speaking of his finest achievements, he singled out his vocal works, as in this remark from his Autobiographical Sketch from 1776: “The following compositions of mine have received the most approbation: Le Pescatrice, I’incontro improvizo, L’infedeltà delusa, Il Ritorno di Tobia, Stabat Mater [1767]… In the chamber-music style I have been fortunate enough to please almost all nations except the Berliners.”1 Here he notes his operas and other vocal works by name, and lumps all of his instrumental works together under the category “chamber-music style.” Even in 1784 he did not dispute the opinion that his opera Armida was his finest work to date.2 We have taken a very different view—that his symphonies and string quartets represent his best efforts, but if theorists and critics at the time found these types of works inferior, he would not publicly contradict them.

If we look at the state of the symphony and the string quartet at the start of his career, we have to concede two points: the symphony existed primarily as a type of service composition, providing an overture for opera or celebrating the occasions of noble visitors and events such as court weddings, and the string quartet did not exist. Forty years later, when he left England in 1795 after his second sojourn, the symphony had become elevated to a place of enormous respect, standing on equal footing with opera as a type of public composition, not just for the nobility but for the new audience that had emerged and covered a broader social spectrum. Not only had audiences in London raved about his symphonies, but concert societies throughout Europe did the same. Of even greater importance than the new popularity of the symphony is the fact that Haydn created symphonies that could engage an audience as any other work of drama could, and in the process could address social, religious, and philosophical issues, using purely instrumental music to do it. When Beethoven found his “new way” just after the turn of the century and wrote the “Eroica” Symphony as his first realization of that way, he had a venue for that type of work thanks to Haydn, and he also had a model for a symphony to be something other than a celebratory piece. Had it not been for Haydn creating this model, Beethoven may simply have continued to write symphonies like his first two, if he had continued with this genre at all. If no one had discovered this potential for the symphony to engage audiences about those matters they care about most deeply, we may not have had the great symphonies of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, DvoÅ™ák, Mahler, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev (who readily acknowledged the debt he owed Haydn).

Since Haydn can be credited with inventing the string quartet, we need to consider how this genre, which he turned into the premier vehicle for chamber music, came about. In all probability it did not happen quite the way his biographer Georg August Griesinger described it roughly half a century after the fact:

The following, purely coincidental circumstance led him to try his hand at the composition of quartets. A Baron Fürnberg… from time to time invited his parish priest, his estates’ manager, Haydn and Albrechtsberger (a brother of the well-known contrapuntalist, who played the violoncello) in order to have a little music. Fürnberg asked Haydn to write something that could be played by these four friends of the Art. Haydn, who was then eighteen years old, accepted the proposal, and so originated his first Quartet.3

If he invented the quartet as a teenager, perhaps posterity would compare him to the youthful Mozart, but memories conveniently fade. He had forgotten that he did not specify in his scores for another fifteen years that the bottom line should be for cello, instead of the more general basso, as in the baroque basso continuo. Regardless of when quartets became quartets, he gave us the finest imaginable kind of chamber music, and not simply a perfectible type of absolute music. His quartets cultivated a conversational relationship among the four players, any one of whom could take the lead at any moment, and the intimacy of the experience had much in common with the ways in which people experienced the novel and other literature at the time, in snug social groups such as families, salons, or reading clubs.4 He knew these literary approaches from the writer he considered his hero, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, and in a letter to an enthusiast in Bergen, he acknowledged that “you happily persuade me… that I am often the enviable means by which you, and so many families sensible to heartfelt emotion, derive, in their homely circle, their pleasure—their enjoyment.”5 Beethoven, whose teacher in Bonn, the organist Christian Gottlob Neefe, had studied with Gellert in Leipzig, gleaned this function of the string quartet from Haydn.6

Symphonies and the Enlightenment

Haydn brought something that went far beyond technical musical matters to both the string quartet and symphony, and precisely this gave substance to these genres, allowing them to be the foundation for instrumental music for at least a century and a half. One cannot say for certain when he started handling the symphony this way, and the terms of his contract with the Eszterházy family did not make it easy for him to treat the symphony as anything other than a celebratory work. During the 1770s he started to write some of his symphonies in minor keys, and at the same time gave them more substance than earlier ones, but his patron, Nicholas Eszterházy, did not especially like these, and Haydn retreated to the familiar major keys. The contract stipulated that his works belonged to his patron, but Prince Nicholas soon recognized Haydn as the jewel in his courtly crown, and it was to the court’s advantage to have Haydn’s works known internationally. As Haydn’s fame spread, concert societies elsewhere in Europe began to approach him with commissions, and an especially significant one came late in 1784, from Comte d’Ogny representing the Concert de la Loge Olympique in Paris, a Masonic organization with first-rate musicians who performed in a Masonic hall to an audience more diverse than the one he knew at court.

This commission coincided with Haydn’s own initiation into the Masonic Lodge “Zur wahren Eintracht” (True Concord) in Vienna, and in all probability he saw this commission as an opportunity to infuse his newest symphonies with the enlightened principles that he embraced along with the members of this lodge. Unlike the more traditional Viennese lodges, “Zur wahren Eintracht” attracted the leading intellectuals and scientists of the nation, and under the direction of its master Ignaz von Born, it became the equivalent of an academy of arts and sciences, something Vienna did not have. Its members included leaders from all the arts and professions, and as the foremost composer in the land, the lodge approach Haydn with an invitation to join. Haydn already knew some of the members from his attendance of literary and musical salons in Vienna, so joining the lodge seemed a logical step since he shared their enlightened outlook. He confirmed this in the reply to his invitation, responding that “The highly favourable impression which Freemasonry has made on me has long awakened in my breast the sincerest wish to become a member of the Order, with its humanitarian and wise principles [as well as] the inexpressible joy of being among a circle of such worthy men.”7 His initiation took place on 15 February 1785, but he did not attend another meeting, prompting some to speculate that he lacked a genuine interest and simply joined out of expediency. In fact, he had no other opportunities to attend: with his hectic schedule he could not get away from Eszterháza, and by the time he could, the lodge no longer existed, having been dissolved by the Freimaurerpatent (law concerning Freemasonry) issued by Joseph II. Joseph simply did not trust any secret society, whether it had good intentions or not, and so he reorganized the existing lodges, drastically reducing their number so they could be more easily monitored. Most of the members of “Zur wahren Eintract” left Freemasonry at that point or soon after, including the master Born, since their interest focused on the special attributes of this one lodge.

All the evidence points to Haydn being as serious about this lodge as the other members, and one of their goals was to reinforce their enlightened goals among other Freemasons with a publication: the Journal für Freymaurer. Since the membership included some of the most prominent writers in Vienna, this turned out to be a natural step, and again underlined the wish for the lodge to be something akin to an academy. In fact, at his initiation Haydn received an exhortation from Joseph von Holzmeister to do the same with music, and that appeared in the next issue of the Journal.8 Haydn needed no such prompting, although the commission of six symphonies from a Masonic society in Paris may have seemed the ideal opportunity to put this into practice, now giving fellow Freemasons something in purely instrumental music that they could recognize as supporting their social and philosophical goals.

To achieve this, he had to depart from the view to which most theorist at the time subscribed, of the primacy of the single affect. During the previous decade or two one can see Haydn building contrast to a much greater extent into his works, and that could involve distinctively different themes or contrast between phrases with tonal or harmonic stability set against passages of ambiguity. Themes could accomplish this in purely musical ways or they could also do it by evoking associations that audiences would recognize, such as with folk music, street songs, dances, and liturgical music, and Haydn used all of these. Contrast could occur in any movement, but it worked best in sonata form movements typically at the beginning of a work, in which conflicting forces can interact and come to a point of resolution not unlike a drama for the stage. Haydn did not invent sonata form, but he transformed it into a process generating drama in music that every composer for the next century or more would use as a starting point; Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony would be unimaginable without Haydn’s achievements.

For the six Paris symphonies, there appears to be good evidence that Haydn presented No. 83 first to the audience, and the sonata form first movement has some exceptional features not previously seen in his symphonies. It starts with a musical problem embedded in the first four thematic notes, outlining a minor triad but emphasizing the dissonant augmented fourth (or tritone) in the ascending pattern before the weak arrival of the triadic note. That tension temporarily dissipates with the entrance of the relative major key and a new theme with a lively dance rhythm, and he follows this with some comic relief—the “clucking” theme which gave this symphony the epithet “La Poule.” Before the end of the exposition he presents an inverted variant of the opening tension-filled motif, assuring us that the problem has not been removed by the cheerful dance themes. We have now been introduced to the thematic players in the drama, and just as one would expect on the stage, these forces then engage each other in the development section, in fact using some very sophisticated counterpoint that allows them to interact simultaneously. Later in that section he returns to the original four-note problem, alternating the dissonance-filled problem with an adjustment of it which gives a resolution.

The players have been particularly well defined in this movement, so when we arrive at the recapitulation, we recognize all of them clearly. Before Haydn the recapitulation had provided little more than a restatement of the themes now in the home or tonic key, perhaps adjusted to the tonic major if the work uses a minor key. This will not suffice for Haydn, as he proceeds to address the dramatic problems from earlier and seeks a resolution as a playwright would. Listeners to purely instrumental works may not know how this can happen, so Haydn takes us by the hand and shows us in no uncertain terms, making the flow of the movement come to a complete halt on a long chord with a fermata over it, a sign that indicates it should be held significantly longer than the written duration. With this pause, he has the listeners’ attention, and he follows it by returning immediately to the problem of the opening motif, stating it twice, and then giving its solution, which leads quickly to the end of the movement. By stating the problem and the solution side by side, as had also been true in the development, he takes his players in conflict and allows them to embrace, not eliminating one through a forced resolution, but by presenting the two now living in coexistence, having overcome their problem. This type of internal resolution would be used by Beethoven less than two decades later in the first movement of the “Eroica” Symphony.

One could say that with this type of coexistence and the manner of defining it, which became standard procedure in many of his subsequent symphonies, Haydn achieved in music what his literary idols had in plays and novels, giving a musical demonstration of the principle of tolerance. Almost every writer from the 18th century subscribed to the view that works of art should serve a moral purpose, with morality now defined in a secular way. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury had emphasized this in his highly influential Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times from 1711, and this work may have even had a stronger appeal in Germany and Austria than it did in England. The literary circles in which Haydn traveled discussed its German translation at length, and Haydn even had a copy of it in his personal library. For Shaftesbury morality could be equated to aesthetics, and an artist could serve a moral goal by bringing about refinement; something higher, though, would be achieved if the work actually taught a moral lesson. Haydn subscribed to this notion entirely, and when speaking to his biographer Griesinger near the end of his life, he gave some idea of how this could apply to his symphonies. Griesinger wished to know “from what motives Haydn wrote his compositions, as well as the feelings and ideas that he had in mind and that he strove to express through musical language,” and Haydn may have given him more than he expected: “But he said that he oftentimes had portrayed moral characters in his symphonies. In one of his oldest, which however, he could not accurately identify, ‘the dominant idea is of God speaking with an abandoned sinner, pleading with him to reform. But the sinner in his thoughtlessness pays no heed to the admonition.’”9 Trying to identify the work will be futile, since Haydn appears to be setting up an image to get at a larger principle; that principle lies in the term “moral characters,” the same one used by Addison and Steele in England or Johann Mattheson and Gellert in Germany in their moral weeklies for portrayals of exemplars of morality. Once again Haydn brings us back to literary genres.

Shaftesbury made it clear that writers must know their audience, and for Haydn that happened in a new and crucial way during his two visits to England, starting in 1791 and ending in 1795, an enterprise that became possible after the death of his patron Nicholas Eszterházy. Now free of the fetters of court, he could mingle with his new audience, getting to know individuals in it (or people who could instruct him in matters of the taste of the English, such as Charles Burney, Thomas Holcroft, or Thomas Twining), and actually attending the concerts to gauge the reaction. When he arrived in England he shrewdly made the rounds of the newspapers to meet the critics, and after hearing some of his symphonies performed he made revisions based on audience response. He wrote twelve symphonies for performance in the Hanover Square Rooms in London, for four separate concert seasons, and another element of shrewdness lay in making certain his works would always be performed on the second half of the concert. One can see a pattern in his English symphonies of writing popular elements into early ones to get the audience on his side, and then gradually raising the level of complexity so that more sophisticated dramatic procedures could be infused, ones that could serve moral goals as the Paris symphonies had. In the ones for the final season he no longer had to win the audience, which he now had in the palm of his hand, and he could make the works as complex as he liked, as he did with Symphony No. 102, and still be confident that his audience would be with him.

Many of these works use procedures similar to No. 83, now with an even higher level of complexity, and in No. 103 he raised this to a new height in taking the listeners by the hand to instruct them in listening. Now the recapitulation not only stops the motion with a fermata but it actually brings back the opening drum roll and part of the slow introduction. As in No. 83, he follows this intrusion with the crucial passage he wants us to focus on, a melding of the Dies Irae-like introduction with it death associations and a bright life-affirming dance theme, a fusion most listeners will miss when it first appears in the exposition, but now becomes singled out as the crux of the movement. Once again, he gives us a fusion of the conflicting forces, and he underlines the notion of tolerance, or an ability to accept the coexistence of opposites. In a way Beethoven too reached a point in his career of appreciating the need to direct his listeners through the process, as happens in the finale of the Ninth Symphony, which reminds us of each of the previous movements before rejecting each one in turn and moving on to a new and higher principle.

Haydn’s personal library

Haydn needed to be rescued at various points in the last two centuries, first of all from obscurity early in the 20th century, and then from the assumption that persisted far too long of him being almost an idiot savant—brilliant with music but unaware of his cultural surroundings. One of the indicators of how misguided this view was did not emerge until after his death, when the preparation of his Nachlass, or estate documentation, revealed the breadth and scope of his personal library. Despite the existence of these documents, no one paid much attention to them until the mid 1970s, when an article by Maria Hörwarthner took a close look at his library.10 Surprisingly well stocked, his library contained a few hundred items, including works of literature, popular philosophical works, histories, dictionaries, general interest books on anything from magic to Freemasonry, travel books, and treatises on music. Many of his books, as one would expect, are in German, but he also had books in English, French, Italian, and Latin.

We may like to think of the personal library as a central sanctuary of the life of an intellectual, writer, or creative artist, but in the case of Haydn the possibility exists that he read very few of the books he owned. His books in English, for example, almost certainly sat unopened on his shelves. Being almost sixty at the time of his first trip to England, he made little progress with the language, and his best hope for communicating with his friends in England depended in large measure on their ability to speak another language, especially Italian, the lingua franca of music. In Italian he got on just fine with his closest associate and strongest champion in England, Charles Burney, an international traveler, writer, music historian, and father of the novelist Fanny Burney. With others he did not fare so well, such as one of his other English supporters, the writer Thomas Holcroft, with whom English had to be the language of communication. One note from Haydn to Holcroft has survived, and it gives a fair idea of his struggle with the language: “Dear Sir! I tack me the liberty to Send you the Canon, and the 2 Songs and if is possible, I self will come to you to day, o to morrow. I was oblieged to tack a Medicine to Day, perhaps I see you this Evening. I am Sir with the greatest Respect, Your Oblig Serv Haydn.”11 This delightfully fractured usage reminds one of a scene from Casablanca, of an elderly German-speaking couple on their way to America, one of whom asks the other “what o’clock,” and the waiter assures them they will get along just fine in America. Writing may not be a good indicator of reading skills, but one can hardly imagine Haydn making much headway with his volumes of Sterne, Adam Smith, Burke, Holcroft, Pope, or least of all, Shakespeare.

The largest part of his collection consisted of works of literature in single volumes or collections, including plays, novels, poetry, satires, portrayals of moral characters, fables, epigrams, and virtually every other type of writing that existed in the 18th century. This included many of the major German writers, and numerous lesser ones as well, some of whom he knew personally. He had some literary works in English and French, but more in Italian, including ones by Metastasio, Goldoni, and Tasso.

His other books cover a wide range of interests, and some of these are purely practical, such as language dictionaries and primers, lexicons of composers or learned Austrians, and guides to gardening, nature, and conversation; somewhat more surprising are his encyclopedias of economics and studies in chemistry, botany, agriculture, meteorology, and politics. His general books, sometimes in popularized versions, include studies of astronomy, travel, magic, theology, and Freemasonry; histories of America, Scotland, the Habsburg monarchy, or the whole world; music histories and theoretical treatises; and moral philosophy and aesthetics, the latter notably by Moses Mendelssohn, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Shaftesbury. Did Haydn have all these interests? The short answer, in all probability, is yes. Some of them we know about through correspondence, such as his keen interest in astronomy or other areas of science. Others, such as Freemasonry, tie into his personal involvement. Subjects such as travel would have come without prompting; by 1795 he had traveled extensively throughout Europe and had crossed the English Channel more than once.

Haydn undoubtedly paid most attention to his volumes of German and Italian literature. Of the German poets represented, he set numerous of their poems to music, including Gellert, Lessing, Gleim, Hagedorn, Bürger, Lichtwer, Gotter, and Ramler. Among these, Christian Fürchtegott Gellert stands out especially. Haydn set a number of Gellert’s Geistliche Oden und Lieder to music as part song, but most strikingly, he told the Swedish diplomat Frederik Silverstolpe, who visited him in 1797, that he considered Gellert to be his hero.12 That Haydn had much in common with Gellert did not escape the attention of his contemporaries. As early as 1766 the Wiener Diarium reported that, “in short, Haydn is that in music which Gellert is in poetry.” Much later, in 1786, in a conversation between Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Joseph II, the two agreed that while Mozart could be compared with Klopstock, Haydn had more in common with Gellert.13

If Haydn did not read many of the books he owned, then why did he own such a fine library? During his most productive years one can hardly imagine where he would have found the time for reading. Before the death of his patron Prince Nicholas in 1790, he mounted as many as 100 opera performances per year, and for these he conducted all performances, rehearsed the singers, added arias and orchestration, and that does not include the staggering number of works he composed. In all probability, he received many of his books as gifts from visitors as tokens of esteem, and this has led some to believe that he simply kept his books as a status symbol. He had come from a lower class, the son of a wheelwright, and while his musical prowess gave him great prestige, the appearance of his library could round out the image. By the mid 1780s if not earlier he had established himself as the greatest composer in German speaking countries, if not the entire world, and that reputation would hold at least until the beginning of the 19th century (we may be more inclined to give the nod to Mozart, but his contemporaries did not share that view). What better gift to give than a book, and that would be especially true of his English books while he lived in England. Some of these in fact would have been gifts from the authors themselves, such as Holcroft and Burney. The complete works of Shakespeare in ten volumes, Captain Cook’s Voyages, or The Selected Works of Laurence Sterne, would have made excellent gifts. He spent a great deal of time with people who had read some of the most notable ones thoroughly, and there can be little doubt that he actively put some of these enlightened views into practice.

While Haydn may in fact have cared about his books offering status, for him they stand as the tangible link between ideas he became deeply committed to and the nature of his enlightened musical achievement, and it matters little if he read them or not. Not only did his works appeal to audiences of his time more than any other composer, but that appeal carried with it the weight and substance of the best thinking of writers and philosophers, allowing his works to serve higher goals. Since these goals firmly remain a part of the consciousness of the present, we can embrace him with the same enthusiasm as his contemporaries, and the presence of his works in the repertory confirms that we have.


H. C. Robbins Landon, ed., The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1959), 19-20.

Ibid., 44.

Georg August Griesinger, Biographische Nachrichten von Joseph Haydn, in Haydn: Two Contemporary Portraits, Vernon Gotwals, trans. and ed. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), 13.

See my Haydn and the Enlightenment: The Late Symphonies and their Audience (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 54-7.

Landon, The Collected Correspondence, 209.

See my “The Art of Conversation: From Haydn to Beethoven’s Early String Quartets,” Studies in Music 19-20 (2000-01): 377-99.

Landon, 48-9.

Joseph von Holzmeister, “Ueber die Harmonie. Bey der Aufnahme des Br. H**n [Haydn],” Journal für Freymaurer 2, no. 2 (1785): 175-81. For an English translation, see H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, vol. 2: Haydn at Eszterházy, 1766-1790 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), 506-08.

Griesinger, Biographische Nachrichten, 62.

Maria Hörwarthner, “Joseph Haydns Bibliothek—Versuch einer literarhistorischen Rekonstruktion,” in Joseph Haydn und die Literatur seiner Zeit, Herbert Zeman, ed. (Eisenstadt: Instituts für österreischische Kulturgeschichte, 1976), 157-207.

Landon, Collected Correspondence, 144-5.

Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, vol. 4: Haydn: The Years of “The Creation,” 1796-1800 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), 256.

Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Lebensbeschreibung. Seinem Sohne in die Feder diktirt (Leipzig: Breitkopf und Härtel, 1801), 213.


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1