Haydn’s early years were speckled with difficulties: enduring six of his eleven siblings dying in infancy, living in a poor household, having only six years under his parents’ training before leaving home to sing in the boys’ choir in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral, losing his post when his voice changed, facing long years in which his compositions were essentially ignored, living in an unhappy and childless marriage, and more. Still, Haydn persevered through such difficulties, choosing rather to focus on the joys and happiness of life, and composing music that shared those sentiments. Perhaps the fact that he prayed daily before beginning to compose explains the themes of his music and the delight they bring.
Joseph Haydn was known as the “Father of the Symphony,” writing over one hundred of them. But he was also prolific in chamber music, keyboard pieces, two dozen operas, several masses, and many other musical works. He influenced the young Wolfgang Mozart, encouraging him in his compositions, and sharing his friendship until Mozart’s early death. It is said that after Mozart’s death, Haydn would be moved to tears at the mere mention of his friend’s name.
Papa Haydn loved fun and had a bit of mischief in him. His Toy Symphony, for instance, was written for different toy instruments and strings, proving his understanding of children and sense of fun. The Surprise Symphony showed Haydn’s mischievous nature as he lulled the audience to near-sleep before making “the ladies scream,” as he phrased it, with sudden loud chords from the entire orchestra. And even at seventy-five years of age, and under house guard, Haydn best showed his stubborn mischievous character when he daily played the Austrian national anthem on his keyboard to show his distaste for Napoleon Bonaparte’s occupying army.
Ultimately, however, it is Haydn’s continual gratitude to and focus on God in his compositions that draw us into his music and life. He once stated, “I offer all my praises to Almighty God, for I owe them to Him alone.” That refrain holds true for all of us.
To learn more about this classical composer, read aloud Opal Wheeler’s Joseph Haydn: The Merry Little Peasant. Enjoy his uniquely thematic symphonies like The Chicken (Symphony No. 83), The Clock (Symphony No. 101), The Surprise Symphony (Symphony No. 94), or his chamber music entitled Emperor (String Quartet in C Major, Opus 76, No. 3), whose second movement brings out the Austrian national anthem (better known as the music to John Newton’s “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken”).