Composer’s Corner: The Story of Joseph Haydn

Composer’s Corner: The Story of Joseph Haydn

If you’ve studied much classical music, you’ve probably heard of Joseph Haydn.

You’ve almost certainly heard some of his music, since he wrote a famous Austrian anthem which has been adapted many times since and is one of the most easily recognizable melodies in the West.

But who was he exactly, and why should we be interested in his work today?

I’m glad you asked. In this series, we’re going to take a trip back in time to discover some of the world’s best composers.

We’ll learn who they were and how they shaped music as we know it today.

This is Joseph’s story.


Franz Joseph Haydn, who hardly ever went by his first name. I guess he felt more like a Joseph than a Franz.


A prolific, passionate, and often witty composer of choral, symphony, and chamber music.


March 31, 1732 – May 31, 1809.

Joseph Haydn was a significant force in shaping the early Classical period.

He was a contemporary of Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach (the son of Johann Sebastian Bach), Christoph Willibald Gluck, Prussian Princess Anna Amalia, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.


Born in Rohrau, Austria, Haydn moved to the nearby town of Hainburg at age six. He then spent most of his childhood at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.

He eventually found employment with Prince Esterhazy and spent the majority of his adult life working at the Esterhazy palace in Eisenstadt.

He toured England twice before returning to the employment of the Esterhazy family. He died in Vienna.

Why It Matters

Joseph Haydn is known as the Father of the Symphony and String Quartet. Although neither genre originated with him, he essentially developed them into the high art forms we know today.

His Surprise, Military, and Drumroll symphonies are hailed as some of the finest in the genre.

He also helped lay the foundation of both sonata and rondo forms.

He, along with Mozart, reduced the popularity of figured bass, a type of musical notation where the composer wrote out only the bass line and indicated the harmony through numbers or symbols. They chose instead to write out the exact notes and harmonies they wanted the performer to play.

Joseph Haydn was in many ways the founder of the Classical music style. He had a huge influence on Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart and his student Ludwig van Beethoven. Mozart even dedicated a series of quartets to him.

Other Interesting Facts

His parents sent him to Hainburg at age six to receive a better musical education. He did get that, but tragically the teacher in charge of his care did not provide him adequate food and clothing. He was also underfed by the choirmaster during his years at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. As a result of this early physical neglect, he remained very short as he grew into adulthood.

He contracted smallpox as a child, leaving his face permanently scarred.

Despite these early difficulties, Haydn was known for his sense of humor and cheery disposition. He often added humor to his compositions.

He was quite a prankster. It was, in fact, a prank on a fellow choir boy that ultimately got him kicked out of St. Stephen’s at the age of seventeen.

He married Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller in 1760. Sadly, their long marriage was unhappy and the couple never had children.

Haydn wrote many compositions for the barytone because Prince Miklos of the Esterhazy family played the instrument and enjoyed accompanying the orchestra.

During his years with the Esterhazys, Haydn was able to renegotiate his contract to allow him to publish his compositions and take commissions. As a result, his fame spread all over Europe.

Living at the Esterhazy, palace, Haydn was fairly isolated from the rest of the musical world. That isolation, though it might have been lonely at times, also sparked his creativity. He once said “There was no one near to confuse me, so I was forced to become original.

His music was especially beloved by the French queen Marie Antoinette.

The English revered Haydn. They wrote poems in his honor and packed into his concert halls. At the end of his second tour, King George III himself asked him to stay in the country, but he chose instead to return to his native Austria.

Haydn was Ludwig van Beethoven’s teacher for the two years in between his English tours.

Haydn’s Catholicism influenced him deeply. He composed many masses and often wrote “in the name of the Lord’ and “praise be to God” at the beginning and end of his manuscripts, respectively.

He composed until the last few years of his life, when his health deteriorated so much that he was no longer able.

Haydn refused to evacuate during Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna. The French general showed respect to the aging composer and even posted a guard outside his door.

He died of natural causes at age seventy-seven.

His Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser has served as the melodic basis for the national anthems of Austria and Germany, and it also inspired his Emperor string quartet. It has been adapted to many hymns and college anthems. Haydn himself loved the song, and he played it constantly on the piano in his later years when he was unable to compose new works. It was the last piece of music he ever played before his death in the spring of 1801:

And that’s the story of Joseph Haydn. What do you think of him? Leave a comment below!

Other Composers Featured in This Series:

Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, George F. Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, Lili Boulanger, Dmitri Shostakovich

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