Franz Joseph Haydn

Biography

Born: 1732   Died: 1809   Country: Austria   Period: Classical
Franz Joseph Haydn is the composer who, more than any other, epitomizes the aims and achievements of the Classical era. Perhaps his most important achievement was that he developed and evolved in countless subtle ways the most influential structural principle in the history of music: his perfection of the set of expectations known as sonata form made an epochal impact. In hundreds of instrumental sonatas, string quartets, and symphonies, Haydn Read more both broke new ground and provided durable models; indeed, he was among the creators of these fundamental genres of classical music. His influence upon later composers is immeasurable; Haydn's most illustrious pupil, Beethoven, was the direct beneficiary of the elder master's musical imagination, and Haydn's shadow lurks within (and sometimes looms over) the music of composers like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms.

Part and parcel of Haydn's formal mastery was his famous sense of humor, his feeling for the unpredictable, elegant twist. In the Symphony No. 94 ("Surprise") (1791), the composer tweaks those audience members who typically fall asleep during slow movements with the sudden, completely unexpected intrusion of a fortissimo chord during a passage of quietude. Haydn's pictorial sense is much in evidence works like his epic oratorio The Creation (1796-1798), in which images of the cosmos taking shape are thrillingly, movingly portrayed in tones. By one estimate, Haydn produced some 340 hours of music, more than Bach or Handel, Mozart or Beethoven. Few of them lack some unexpected detail or clever solution to a formal problem.

Haydn was prolific not just because he was a tireless worker with an inexhaustible musical imagination, but also because of the circumstances of his musical career: he was the last prominent beneficiary of the system of noble patronage that had nourished European musical composition since the Renaissance. Born in the small Austrian village of Rohrau, he became a choirboy at St. Stephen's cathedral in Vienna when he was eight. After his voice broke and he was turned out of the choir, he eked out a precarious living as a teenage freelance musician in Vienna. His fortunes began to turn in the late 1750s as members of Vienna's noble families became aware of his music, and on May 1, 1761, he went to work for the Esterházy family. He remained in their employ for the next 30 years, writing many of his instrumental compositions and operas for performance at their vast summer palace, Esterháza.

Musical creativity may often, it is true, meet a tragic end, but Haydn lived long enough to reap the rewards of his own imagination and toil. The Esterházys curtailed their musical activities in 1790, but by that time Haydn was known all over Europe and widely considered the greatest living composer. (He himself deferred to Mozart in that regard, and the friendly competition between the two composers deepened the music of both.) Two trips to London during the 1790s resulted in two sets of six symphonies each (among them the "Surprise" symphony) that remain centerpieces of the orchestral repertoire. Haydn's final masterpieces included powerful choral works: the Creation and Seasons oratorios and a group of six masses. Haydn stopped composing in 1803, after which he prefaced his correspondence with a little musical quotation (from one of his part-songs) bearing the text "Gone is all my strength; I am old and weak." He died in Vienna on May 31, 1809. Read less
Haydn: The Creation / Kirkby, Hogwood, AAM
Release Date: 01/08/2008   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 000830509   Number of Discs: 1
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Haydn: Symphonies 101 & 103 / Glover, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 11/11/2008   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28490   Number of Discs: 1
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Haydn: Symphonies Nos. 102, 104
Release Date: 07/13/2010   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28420   Number of Discs: 1
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Haydn: String Quartets
Release Date: 02/08/2011   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28620   Number of Discs: 1
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Haydn: Symphonies 43, 44, 45 / Sanderling, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Release Date: 04/12/2011   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28940   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Emperor Quartet

 

About This Work
This is both the most popular and most notorious of Haydn's string quartets, all because of the second movement, a beautiful hymn that was later misappropriated by the twentieth century's most evil regime. Back in the late eighteenth century, Read more Napoleon was posing a serious threat to the Hapsburg empire; after his armies raided Styria in 1796 Haydn was driven to a burst of nationalism. He set patriotic words by L.L. Haschka as a so-called Kaiserlied, and had an immediate hit on his hands. He determined to write all the "popularized" arrangements himself, including one for string quartet. This became the slow movement of the third quartet of his opus 76 set. The moving, noble melody has been too good to pass up. Later composers, including Czerny and Smetana, incorporated it into works of their own. And a few decades after the Austrian empire finally collapsed, Germany's Nazis commandeered the melody for the song "Deutschland über alles." This limited the quartet's popularity among the Allies during and immediately after World War II, but the taint soon washed away.

The whole quartet seems to be a patriotic effort once you realize that the first bar of the opening Allegro is a musical anagram. Its notes correspond to the first letters of the words "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser" (with "Caesar" apparently filling in for "Kaiser"); this is the opening line of the Kaiserlied on which the second movement is based. This is hardly obvious unless you examine the score, for all you hear is a bright, bouncy C-major tune that the first violin soon appropriates with an obsessive dotted rhythm. In the late eighteenth century, by the way, that rhythm was symbolically associated with royal occasions. All the movement's principal thematic matter is derived from this small bit of music. The development section includes a characteristically Haydnesque surprise: an E-major Hungarian scene with a gypsy-like accompaniment of strong accents on weak beats. This was Haydn's nod to the Hungarian aristocrats who employed Haydn and commissioned these quartets; they were footing a big part of the bill for the emperor's war against Napoleon.

The second movement, Poco adagio-cantabile, begins with an especially sweet statement of the Emperor Hymn, then puts it through four variations. The first is a quiet but ornate elaboration for the first violin, while the second fiddle plays the theme in its original form. The next variation shifts the theme down to the cello, with the viola and second violin providing harmony and the first violin offering counterpoint. The viola finally gets its own statement of the theme in the third variation while the top and bottom instruments wind around it. Finally comes a richly harmonized version of the theme with more elaborate inner voices than in the beginning, but nothing as complex as what has come in between.

The Minuet is a good-humored drawing-room dance, marked especially by a slightly mocking downward-drifting figure in the first violin. The trio is a cautious- sounding variation of the Minuet's main theme.

The Presto finale thrusts us into what one analyst has described as a C-minor battle scene: Franz vs. Napoleon. The movement does begin with three loud, jagged chords and eventually has the first violin fire off a barrage of eighth notes, but there's little explicitly militaristic about the music. After this material is intensely developed, the main themes return in a C major version that certainly sounds optimistic, though not necessarily triumphant.

-- James Reel
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