Franz Joseph Haydn was among the creators of the fundamental genres of classical music, and his influence upon later composers is immense. Haydn’s most celebrated pupil was Ludwig van Beethoven, and his musical form casts a huge shadow over the music of subsequent composers such as Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms.
Haydn was recruited at age 8 to the sing in the choir at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, where he went on to learn to play violin and keyboard. After he left the choir, he supported himself by teaching and playing violin, while studying counterpoint and harmony.
Haydn soon became an assistant to composer Nicola Porpora in exchange for lessons, and in 1761 he was named Kapellmeister, or “court musician,” at the palace of the influential Esterházy family, a position that would financially support him for nearly 30 years. Isolated at the palace from other composers and musical trends, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original.”
The Mature Artist
While Haydn rose in the Esterházy family’s esteem, his popularity outside the palace walls also increased, and he eventually wrote as much music for publication as for the family. Several important works of this period were commissions from abroad, such as the Paris symphonies (1785-1786) and the original orchestral version of “The Seven Last Words of Christ” (1786). Haydn came to feel sequestered and lonely, however, missing friends back in Vienna, such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, so in 1791, when a new Esterházy prince let Haydn go, he quickly accepted an invitation to go to England to conduct new symphonies.
Audiences flocked to Haydn’s concerts, and during his time in England he generated some of his best-known work, including the “Rider” quartet and the Surprise, Military, Drumroll and London symphonies.
Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795 and took up his former position with the Esterházys, although only part-time. At this point, he was a public figure in Vienna, and when he wasn’t at home composing, he was making frequent public appearances. With his health failing, his creative spirit outlasted his ability to harness it, and he died at age 77.
Haydn is remembered as the first great symphonist and the composer who essentially invented the string quartet. The principal engineer of the classical style, Haydn exerted influence on the likes of Mozart, his student Ludwig van Beethoven and scores of others.
The Surprise Symphony
Surprise Symphony, byname of Symphony No. 94 in G Major, orchestral work by Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, so named for the “surprise”—a startlingly loud chord—that interrupts the otherwise soft and gentle flow of the second movement. The distinctive feature did not appear in the original score. Rather, it was added by the composer on a whim for the piece’s London premiere on March 23, 1792, and was retained in later performances.
The piece gained fame when the composer himself, while serving as conductor, impulsively altered the dynamics of the second movement. There has been much speculation on the reason behind the change. According to one account, Haydn had already given the downbeat to begin the movement when the gentle snores of a front-row patron piqued his sense of humour. He and his musicians forged ahead with the little theme until reaching its final chord, for which Haydn cued an immense fortissimo (loud tone), bringing the drowsy patron to his feet. Whatever Haydn’s motivation, the episode ultimately earned for the work its everlasting nickname, Surprise Symphony—in English. In German it is known as the symphony mit dem Paukenschlag—that is, “with the drum stroke,” an equally apt sobriquet.
Beyond such colourful anecdotes, the four-movement symphony follows a structure that was, at the time, still considered novel: it begins with a generally lively movement that offers several contrasting melodies; the second movement proceeds at a gentler pace, though with the moment of “surprise”; and the third movement is dance-flavoured, specifically resembling the then-popular minuet, a predecessor of the waltz. The last movement is the liveliest of all, with brisk and scurrying ideas that bring the piece to an energetic conclusion. Such a pattern became the norm for symphonies in the decades that followed, largely due to the initiative and stature of Haydn himself. He pioneered the structure, and his popularity was such that other composers, including Mozart and Beethoven, chose his work as their model for how a symphony should be composed.