The details of Haydn’s early life are sketchy. He was born in an Austrian village and came from a humble background. At about the age of eight he was chosen to join the choir of one of Vienna’s most important cathedrals. After his voice changed, he supported himself by teaching and working as a freelance performer, then at the age of 29, entered the service of a wealthy and powerful Hungarian aristocratic family, the Esterhazys. Music was a central component of life at the Esterhazy estate in the Hungarian countryside and the household staff included orchestral musicians, opera singers, and a chapel choir. Haydn’s contract specified that he was responsible to provide music as required by the prince, care for the musicians and instruments, and conduct himself “as befits an honest house officer in a princely court.” For 30 years Haydn lived and worked at the Esterhazy palace, largely isolated from what was happening elsewhere. As he himself recalled, “My prince was content with all my works, I received approval, I could, as head of an orchestra, make experiments, observe what created an impression, and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to, cutting away, and running risks. I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to become original.” With the succession of a new Esterhazy prince in 1790, Haydn’s life took a new direction. Although he continued to earn a salary, he was no longer required to live at the Esterhazy estate. He moved back to Vienna, one of the musical capitals of the time, where he met and befriended Mozart and for several years was the teacher of the young Beethoven. He also accepted invitations for two lengthy trips to London, for which he composed a number of important new works. In London, performances devoted to his music, including 12 brilliant new symphonies, were highlights of the concert season. He appeared before the royal family, was sought after as a guest at social occasions, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. In Vienna, where his monumental oratorios The Creation and The Seasons were enthusiastically received, he was named an honorary citizen. At his death at the age of 77, Haydn had become one of Europe’s most celebrated figures.
Haydn’s vast compositional output includes 52 piano sonatas, 104 symphonies, concertos for a variety of instruments, works for a variety of chamber groupings, masses and other sacred vocal music, operas, and oratorios. Written over more than a half century, his works document the transition from the late Baroque to the mature classical style, to which he himself made definitive contributions. In his works in sonata form, he deepened and extended practices of motivic development and he elevated the string quartet from one of many possible groupings to the most important chamber music ensemble. His late symphonies balance simplicity of themes with brilliant orchestration. And his musical language encompasses a broad spectrum of expressive content — folk-like innocence, intense passion, playfulness, high-spirited humor, tenderness, joyful exuberance, sorrow.