Saturday, May 31, 2008

Papa Haydn

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn. I'm very much looking forward to next year's 200th anniversary. With a little luck I'll be in Austria for it next summer. Haydn was greatly respected by Mozart and taught piano and composition to a young brash kid from Bonn by the name of Beethoven (although the relationship was a bit strained.) Papa Haydn is known by many monikers "Father of the Symphony" and "Father of the String Quartet". While he didn't invent these genres, he was instrumental (pardon the pun) in the development of these forms. Haydn lived at a time when the Baroque style was quickly going out of fashion. It was a time of great musical experimentation and many of his pieces are unique. Many of his symphonies form an important part of the standard repertoire of any respectable classical orchestra today. And of course, as I know from personal experience, any piano student will bump into at least a couple of his piano sonatas before too long.

His well-known "Farewell" Symphony was written in F-sharp minor, the only known symphony of the 18th century to be written in this key. I suspect why this key was avoided like the plague by major composers was that it is a difficult key to play in when it comes to fingerings. Horn players needed a special set of crooks fashioned just in order to play this one piece. Anyhow, Haydn wrote 106 symphonies and 68 string quartets, one of the largest bodies of 18th work for these genres.

Haydn was a bit of an anomaly for his time. For one, he never married. He also spent much of his professional life with a single employer. The Eszterhazy family was among one of the most important families in what is now Austria and western Hungary. At a time when Mozart was without a patron, Haydn had access to an entire court orchestra and choir. Haydn also lived a long life (77 years), more than twice as long as his contemporary Mozart and two full decades longer than Beethoven.

By all accounts, Haydn was well-liked and respected by other court musicians and he was a great practical joker. His "Surprise" Symphony is so-called because he places and loud chord in the second movement just to make sure his listeners didn't doze off during a performance. Haydn is on my list of composers I'd love to be able to go back in time and spend a day with. For me, he was one of the quintessential classical composers and his works form a vital part of my own musical library.