The Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809), a friend of Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven, was a very influential composer of the Classical period. His many symphonies and string quartets, in particular, ensured his lasting reputation as the ‘father’ of these two musical genres, and he also wrote a significant amount of chamber music, piano music, concertos and choral works.
Haydn started out as a chorister in Vienna and spent much of his adult working life employed by the aristocratic Esterházy family at their palace south of Vienna. As their court composer he had at his disposal a number of talented musicians and was able to compose freely and originally for the court orchestra and singers. During the period from about 1765 to the late 1770s he wrote a large amount of symphonies, sacred works and chamber music, and began to compose operas for the theatre at the palace where he worked.
n 1779 Haydn successfully negotiated a new contract which gave him permission to sell his compositions outside of the Esterházy palace. His output became more commercially driven and he wrote more quartets and symphonies and fewer operas in response to commissions from all over Europe. Whilst maintaining his role at the Esterházy palace Haydn also began to become internationally famous. During the 1780s he spent increasingly more time in Vienna and became friends with Mozart, the two composers often playing in a string quartet together.
When Prince Nikolaus of the Esterházys died in 1790, Haydn’s role with the family was reduced and he was able to accept more outside work. His music was hugely popular across Europe and so Haydn ‘went on tour’, accepting a lucrative contract to compose and conduct a number of new symphonies in London where he was particularly popular. His two visits in the early 1790s were a tremendous success and Haydn made a lot of money from his appearances at concerts, and these tours also produced a lot of his most renowned works such as many of his later symphonies (some of which were called the ‘London’ symphonies.
It was during Haydn’s first visit to London that his friend, Mozart, became ill and died at the age of 35, which deeply affected Haydn. He also called in along the way at the house of the young Beethoven in Bonn, Germany, in 1790, and became Beethoven’s teacher when the latter came to Vienna a couple of years later. Later in the 1790s, on returning from his tours, Haydn worked part-time for the Esterházys and enjoyed celebrity status in Vienna, where he wrote his late works such as The Creation. He died after a long illness in 1809, the same year that Napoleon’s army captured Vienna.