Haydn History


Austrians Embrace Beloved Composer 200 Years After His Death

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn once told a biographer that despite coming from nowhere, he had achieved a lot — a bit of an understatement from one of Europe’s most revered musical minds.

The Austrian Embassy documents exactly how much the famed composer accomplished in his life with a traveling exhibit that continues in Washington until September, before moving onto Chicago and then heading back to Vienna.

“Haydn on Tour – A Documentary Exhibition on Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)” is part of Haydn 2009, a showcase that originated in the Austrian town of Eisenstadt and is now touring the United States to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death (1732-1809).

“The Austrian Embassy remembers the 200-year anniversary of one of the great Austrian composers,” said Andrea Schrammel, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Washington. “This [exhibit] documents his life and work.”

The walls of the embassy’s large entry room are covered with roughly 40 frames encapsulating portraits, letters, sheet music, maps, prints, awards and drawings. Each frame tells a small piece of Haydn’s long story, from his birth in the Austrian hamlet of Rohrau near the Hungarian border, to his early struggles, to his career as a court musician for a wealthy Hungarian aristocratic family, to his death as a wealthy composer at the age of 77 — having composed more than 100 symphonies, 69 string quartets, 128 baryton trios, and 14 masses.

He began like most children do — learning musical instruction at home with his music-loving family, including his father Mathias, a wheelwright and folk player. Haydn was sent off as a young boy for more formal instruction, and with an impressive singing voice, he joined his church choir in Vienna.

Eventually, Haydn stopped singing and began teaching and composing music, trying to make ends meet for several years in various jobs before establishing himself. The bulk of Haydn’s musical career was spent as a court musician for the House of Esterházy, a noble Hungarian family. From 1766 to 1790, Haydn lived with the family at their various palaces, where he was given free reign to compose music and mount operatic productions, although some say Haydn felt isolated working far from Vienna.

Nevertheless, Haydn remained well connected with the classical greats of the time. He was a friend of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and he taught German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven, though the two only had a few lessons together.

Haydn’s first opera, “Acide,” written for the Esterházy court, was performed at the wedding of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s first-born son in 1763. From 1780 to 1790 alone, the prolific composer directed more than 1,000 opera performances. But operas weren’t his only compositions. Haydn composed 125 divertimenti for baryton (a bowed string instrument), viola and cello, as well as numerous solo pieces, duets, and instrumental music with solo parts and sometimes two baritones.

Up until the age of 60, Haydn stayed within a very small area of Austro-Hungary, but by 1790, with the death of his employer Prince Nikolaus, he was able to venture abroad and made his first trip to England. Already renowned throughout Europe, Haydn composed one of his most famous works in early 1797, “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (God Save the Emperor Franz)”, which served as the Austrian national anthem for more than a century.

The exhibit closes with Haydn’s death on May 31, 1809, at his home in the suburb of Gumpendorf, during Napoleon’s siege of Vienna. Although Napoleon had driven the Austrian emperor from Vienna, no amount of warfare — or time for that matter — could drive Haydn from the minds of his countrymen.

Musicologist James Webster, describing Haydn as an honest man “whose good character and worldly success enable and justify each other,” praised the composer’s ability to excel in every musical genre. “He is familiarly known as the ‘father of the symphony’ and could with greater justice be thus regarded for the string quartet,” Webster wrote. “No other composer approaches his combination of productivity, quality and historical importance in these genres.”

“Haydn on Tour” through Sept. 4 Embassy of Austria 3524 International Court, NW. For information, please call (202) 895-6714 or visit www.acfdc.org or http://haydn2009.at.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.