Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Portrait of Joseph Haydn
. by Thomas Hardy. 1791. Royal College of Music Museum of Instruments. Via Wikimedia.

For nearly half of his life Joseph Haydn occupied the humble position of musician in the service of the Esterhazy princes, wearing livery and playing his wonderful compositions while the guests at dinner most likely only half- listened while discussing the latest political intrigues in Vienna. In time his reputation grew and when leaving in 1791 to perform in London, he bid goodbye to his friend Mozart, saying he might never see him again. He thought he was talking about himself, but it was Mozart who died as a young man soon after his departure while he lived on to the ripe age of 77.

He was born in 1732. His parents lived in a peasant cottage in the little village of Rohrau in eastern Lower Austria close to the Hungarian border, in a flat marshy area that had been ravaged in 1683 by the Turks. Joseph’s father was a farmer and wheelwright, a hard-working peasant of possible remote Croatian descent, content with his own lot in life but ambitious for his sons. His mother had been a cook in the castle of a local count where she would have been expected to maintain a high level of culinary excellence and handle such high delicacies as crayfish and tortoises. She bore twelve children of whom Joseph was the second, was deeply religious, and inculcated all her children with habits of order, regularity, and hard work. The Haydns could not read music, but the father loved to play the harp in the evening by the fireside while the mother would sing and their little boy would accompany them, singing and using two sticks as if they were violin and bow. Thus exposed to music from an early age and exhibiting in it an usual interest and talent, he was sent at the age of six to live with a distant relative, a school principal and choir director, to be trained in music to perhaps enter the priesthood. He did acquire an extensive education, though often hungry and receiving “more floggings than food.”

In 1739 his voice attracted the interest of the Kappelmeister of the famous Cathedral of St. Stephen, and he sang there in the choir for about ten years, expanding his musical skills though again receiving insufficient food and often going hungry. He sang in processions and ceremonies, often before the Empress Maria Theresa, sometimes in her newly erected palace of Schönbrunn, and was exposed to great music and famous musicians. He had a beautiful soprano voice and considered making it permanent, but this was wisely vetoed by his father. Eventually his voice broke and on a cold November he was dismissed and thrown out on the street. Difficult years followed for the nineteen-year-old boy left to his own resources, penniless, hungry, homeless, and with no prospects of any kind. He spent the first night after his dismissal in the open near the cathedral, then met an acquaintance who offered him shelter in the garret of his house. For the next eight years Haydn had a hard life, giving music lessons for miserably small fees, performing at social functions, or serving as a valet-accompanist, but also educating himself in music and beginning to compose. Eventually his luck began to change, his reputation increasing. In 1758 he secured a position as Kappelmeister to a Viennese count. The position lasted only one year and was ended because of his patron’s financial difficulties, but Haydn quickly obtained a similar job with the immensely wealthy Esterhazy family. He was employed according to a contract consisting of fourteen clauses written on five pages.

Between 1761 and 1790 Haydn served the Hungarian Esterhazy princes at their Eisenstadt palace, at first as Vice-Kappelmeister and after 1766 in the principal position, conducting an orchestra, expected “to treat the musicians placed under him not overbearingly but with mildness, and leniency, modestly, quietly and honestly.” He was to always appear in uniform, dressed neatly in white stockings, white linen, a pigtail, and a powdered wig. He was regarded as a house officer, one level above the cleaners and cooks but on a par with the doctor, librarian, and master of the stables. He was expected to provide musical entertainment every day—some selected music by others but increasingly his own compositions, symphonies, operatic arias, quartets, and concertos—plus other duties such as keeping the musical instruments in order and instructing the female vocalists. Commanded to compose a variety of musical compositions, he produced an immense number of musical works, symphonies, operas, quartets, etc. By 1790 he had become Europe’s leading composer, but was still stuck in a provincial palace, increasingly lonely and isolated. In that year the reigning Esterhazy Prince died and his successor dismissed the orchestra in order to economize, though offering Haydn a continuing salary or pension.

It was at that stage, in 1791, that Haydn left the Esterhazy service, being recruited by the German impresario Johann Peter Salomon to play in London. He took the city by storm, gave many concerts, wrote his great London symphonies, and was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Music by the University of Oxford. He returned to London in 1794 for a second tour. In 1795 he settled in Vienna, worked now as only part-time Kappelmeister for the Esterhazy family, and continued his prodigious musical output. During his life he composed 125 symphonies, overtures, and plays; 78 string quartets; about 13 operas; and numerous concertos, divertimenti, trios, quartets, sonatas, masses, Te Deums, oratorios, cantatas, and other musical compositions.

During his long life, Haydn had several illnesses. As a child his face was disfigured by smallpox. In 1759 he fell from a horse and resolved he would never get on a horse again. In 1782 he fell again and injured his leg and could not walk for some time. He had several respiratory infections and suffered much from nasal polyps, which an operation (conducted without anesthesia) failed to cure and partially destroyed his nasal bones which troubled him for the rest of his life. By 1801 his health and powers began to decline—this at a time of war as Napoleon’s armies moved from success to success and twice occupied Vienna, in 1805 and again in 1809. Becoming increasingly weak, he developed congestive heart failure and died on the May 31, 1809. The major finding at the autopsy was atherosclerosis of the coronary and cerebral arteries.

After Haydn was buried, two of his former admirers and fanatical adherents of the phrenologist Franz Joseph Gall bribed the gravediggers and removed his skull in order to have it studied and give it a more prominent burial. When the coffin was opened in 1822, the head was found missing. It had ended up in the anatomy museum of Professor Karl von Rokitansky and had been later presented to the Vienna Musical Society. It did not join the rest of the skeleton for ceremonial burying until 1954, 150 years after the composer’s death. A monument in the church in Eisenstadt where he is buried commemorates the life of Papa Haydn, friend of Mozart and teacher of Beethoven, the “Father of the Symphony” and of the many other musical forms of the Classical Period. It has been said that he left the world happier and the better for his work in it.

Selected references

  1. Karl and Irene Geiringer: Haydn, a creative life in music. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1946, revised 1982.
  2. David Wyn Jones: The life of Haydn, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  3. Anton Neumeyr. Music and Medicine. Medi-Ed Press, 1994.
  4. Calvin R. Stapert. Playing before the Lord. The life and work of Joseph Haydn. William B. Erdman Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge UK, 2014.
  5. Pauline D. Townsend. Joseph Haydn. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, London 1884.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022

Fall 2021



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