Haydn (The Esterhazy Years)




Matthew is about to get us going again with a new series dealing with Haydn’s years in the service of the Esterhazy family.  It is by no means the first time that Matthew has devoted either a lecture or a series to Haydn who is very much one of his favourites.  Six years ago, he embarked on the first in a series dealing with the history of the string quartet with Haydn at the prow.  Earlier he had devoted a whole series to Haydn in London, which covered the two visits in 1791 and 1793 including many of the twelve ‘London’ symphonies. Then, two years ago in 2015 Haydn appeared in another series, Orchestral Splendours, in which his two great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, were featured.  I myself had previously written an outline Haydn biographical sketch for the Quartet series. For the two oratorios, I thought I could give him a miss. But, as I wrote at the time, you can’t play Hide ‘n Seek with Haydn and so I produced an article based on the London years and After.

Well, here we are again, this time going back to have a peek at the Esterhazy years. It covers almost thirty years in Haydn’s life and an enormous proportion from his total output. Yet the music from this period is not so well known as that of the London period when he had superior orchestral forces available to extend the range of his writing. Performances of his earlier symphonies are less frequently given and thus less familiar.  This may lead to an impression that these are lesser works, lacking maturity, which is far from the case.  It was not until the mammoth project of recording all 104 of the Haydn symphonies by the Philharmonia Hungarica under Antal Dorati in 1965 that all the symphonies could be obtained on disc. Dorati opened our eyes and ears to a whole sound world of music composed by the man who in his time was the greatest composer on earth.

Such stature has become a little lost on us today compared with his own time.  Mozart was his much younger contemporary but whose reputation during his own short life did not receive the same acclaim as that of Haydn. As night followed day, so Beethoven followed Haydn adding a considerable degree of weight and drama that would come to overshadow his great predecessor and, at one time, teacher.  Certainly, a good few of those Haydn symphonies are known and played, particularly where they have names attributed to them. Nevertheless, do not run away with the idea that Haydn just churned out run of the mill eighteenth century symphonies.  He is always teeming with new ideas, experimental sounds, always inventive and not just a joker as commentators might have us believe.  I would go further and say that as a composer he was a maverick who knew he could somehow get away with it.  It is that aspect which changed him from a bewigged kapellmeister to a genius.

I should also add that the thirty year stretch must have involved many interesting episodes but in biographical changes there is little to relate. The same might be said of a solicitor spending 30 years in Blackheath which in retrospect seems a bit samish. In the article below which I wrote six years ago I summed up life with the Esterhzay’s in one paragraph.  What follows is an expanded rehash of that article.

 Haydn very deservedly has been merited with the label, Father of the Symphony.  Yet this is not strictly qccurate. There were symphonies before Haydn, although it was he who put the symphony on the map with 104 of them.    There can be no question however that he would have been entitled to the name, Father of the String Quartet.  Before Haydn there were no string quartets.  There was chamber music, frequently with two violins and harpsichord or cello continuo but the string quartet itself was devised, almost by accident, developed and sculpted into shape by the one man. Early versions contained usually five or more movements including two minuets. It was not until the Esterhazy years that it settled into the standard four movements, two outer ones fast and in between a slow movement and minuet, following sonata form as in the symphonies.

Haydn, the son of a wheelwright, was born according to his birth certificate on 1st April 1732, a most propitious date for someone who is best remembered for his humour. His birthplace was close to the Austria/Hungary border on the Austrian side of the river and Haydn is claimed by both of these countries. He started displaying his musical gifts from an early age. He was hardly a wunderkind à la Mozart but his parents sent him to live with their relative, Johann Matthias Frankh, the schoolmaster and choirmaster in Hainburg, who promised that he would train Josef in music. As a young child, he learned to play various musical instruments and received some basic training before being sent to Vienna to become a chorister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. There discipline was rigorous and teaching was done on the cheap by older pupils passing their knowledge down to others as did Josef for his younger brother Michael who became an even more renowned pupil. There was no formal instruction in music theory and Josef learned on his own from studying scores. He was eventually dropped after nine years at the cathedral at the age of 16.  According to most accounts, this was because he was given the red card for the prank of cutting another choirboy’s pigtail.  In reality, his voice was beginning to break and he could no longer make the high notes.  One authority suggests that there had earlier been discussed the possibility for an extended career for Josef by an operation which would have resulted in him becoming a permanent soprano. However, his father objected. And I venture to think that Haydn himself, given the choice, was content with the eventual outcome. No-one now regrets the loss of a prospective castrato but it can be safely said that the world was left with a better legacy (as was Haydn) and the output of one of the most gifted of composers.

On leaving St Stephens, Haydn lived a rough life in Vienna for some twelve years, dossing in a garret with a friend and his family. For those who perceive Haydn as just a musical lackey, compared to the freelancing Mozart and Beethoven, it may come as a surprise that Haydn was doing the streets, scraping by playing in street bands, teaching and looking for odd commissions.  He lacked theoretical instructions but he studied closely the scores of others, particularly the keyboard works of C P E Bach. He then managed to gain the position of valet-accompanist to Nicola Porpora, a crusty old opera composer, from whom he took lessons to improve his technical knowledge of playing and composing. His writing of string quartets came about fortuitously round about 1757. He had been teaching the daughters of Baron Furnberg, a gifted amateur musician who wanted some music especially for him to play with his colleagues.  The instrumentation that was available for the purpose happened to be two violins, viola and cello.   His compositions for Furnberg proved most satisfactory and led to a recommendation in which he was appointed kapellmeister to Count Morzin in about 1758 and in charge of an orchestra of 12.  Present at the very first Morzin concert turned out to be a most important visitor, Prince Paul Anton Esterharzy.

Now with the security of a permanent job and a good salary, Haydn reckoned the time had come to settle down and marry.  He had a soft spot for Theresia Keller, a pupil of his who was the daughter of a court wigmaker in whose house Haydn was lodging at the time. She however did not return his affections and instead she became a nun.  We do not know why exactly but Haydn seem to have felt guilty about this and offered to marry instead her older sister, Maria Anna. At this time, employees were not allowed wives under the Morzin regime and so Haydn concealed this fact of his marriage in order to safeguard the job. By all accounts it was never a happy marriage or a love match and their separation was probably a relief to Haydn even if a bone of contention with Mrs H.  One should also bear in mind that employment often necessitated long periods from home, there being no means of commute between home and the workplace.  There are various references to the marriage being loveless and childless.  Mrs Haydn is variously described as a shrew and a religious bigot. They were to all intents living apart and both of them were said to be carrying on their private affairs. She seems to have been some kind of groupie amongst priests and monks.  Doubtless opportunity presented itself to Haydn in his teaching sessions with young trainee sopranos. Most accounts are from his side and perhaps posterity has been unkind to her.  She probably saw another side to her husband, unperceived by others.  Who might know what life is like living with a genial genius!  It has been difficult to unravel this aspect of their respective domestic lives. One is left with the impression that during the thirty years of his working for the Esterharzys they lived apart if only by force of circumstance and only coming together again on his leaving the Esterhazys. However, I have come across contrary reference to Haydn having his own accommodation at Esterhaza and later buying a cottage there with Frau Haydn living in.  This would fit with the account of Frau Haydn using Haydn’s written manuscripts for scouring the saucepans or twisting into curlers. The truth seems to be somewhere in between and that, apart from a short period, they had settled for the fact that they were married in the eyes of God and the law but it suited both of them to keep their distance. Later on, Haydn made his two London visits, each of eighteen months, in 1791 and 1793 and his lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of his return when his wife was mentioned has always caught the remarks of commentators. By that time however Haydn had left the Esterhazy palace and the two were planning at her suggestion to house-share in Vienna, she upstairs and he downstairs.

Under Morzin, Haydn was in charge of an orchestra varying between eleven and sixteen musicians and it was for this ensemble that he wrote his first symphony as well as numerous divertimenti for wind band or for wind instruments and strings. These early musical compositions were still conventional in character, yet a certain freshness of melodic invention and sparkle. Estimates and approximations vary as to how many symphonies he wrote in that period. These vary between the experts from eleven to twenty.  His symphonies are now numbered from 1 to 104 but that is by no means the order in which they were composed, or first played. The orchestrations vary according to the instruments that were available from time to time. One good example is that symphony no. 31 known as “the Horn Signal” has four horns. So does symphony no.71 (“La Chasse”) which, it turns out, was written two years before No 31!

Eventually Haydn did inform the Count of his marriage which did not create for him the difficulty he had feared.  At that time Haydn and the orchestra were away from Vienna at Morzin’s summer palace, Dolní Lukavice near Pilsen in Bohemia. What did bring about the end of their relations was Morzin’s profligacy.  Like many of the aristocracy he had no understanding of there being a limitation to his wealth. He was fast heading for bankruptcy and amongst the first of the cuts was the orchestra. It must have come as a blow to Haydn who would have seen himself back on the streets of Vienna.  However, he now had a good CV. It may well be that Morzin put in a word with Prince Esterhazy but at any rate, in 1761, Haydn was engaged as a vice Kapellmeister at Eisenstadt, about thirty miles from Vienna, to Gregor Josef Werner by the even richer Prince Paul Esterhazy and at twice his previous salary.

The Esterhazy family was one of the richest and most influential within the Austro-Hungarian empire. As well as their Palace at Eisenstadt, the permanent residence of the Esterhazys, they owned castles throughout Austria/Hungary. They lived royally and reigned like sovereigns within their principality. As deputy Kapellmeister at Eisenstadt an important period of Haydn’s life had begun, “it is where I wish to live and to die”, he wrote in a letter in July 1776. His first compositions there are thought to be the symphonies No 6, “Le Matin”, No 7, “Le Midi” and No 8, “Le Soir”. As I mentioned earlier, do not be misled by their numbers. The titles are thought to have been suggested by the Prince. Haydn occupied rooms at the Musicians’ House near the Bergkirche until 1766 when he purchased a house of his own, close to the Franciscan Monastery.

When Haydn commenced his duty at Eisenstadt he was initially employed as deputy Kapellmeister to Werner who was getting old and sick but officially remained in charge and director of the orchestra. De facto, Haydn’s duties involved his taking over the whole caboodle, except for religious music. Records show that a bit of under the counter money accountancy took place to hide from Werner the fact that Haydn was being paid more than him.   Haydn’s contract stipulated that he should conduct himself soberly and dress accordingly and that he set an example to the musicians and compose music on request of the Prince. His duties encompassed the maintenance of instruments, cataloguing of musical scores, lecturing, composing and performing concerts. The Prince had a glasshouse within the Palace Park converted into a theatre and Haydn was able to augment the orchestra having likely as not recruited some of players from the Morzin band. 

In March 1762, less than a year after Haydn landed the job, Prince Paul Anton died and doubtless Haydn might well have had thoughts as to whether he would be returning to the Vienna streets. However, if anyone could claim to have Lady Luck on his side it was Haydn. Prince Paul Anton was succeeded by his brother, Prince Nikolaus. His musical requirements were as mammoth as the Esterharzy schlosses which he continued to expand as though they were Barratts Homes. Prince Nikolaus  was dubbed “The Magnificent”, proof of his delight in spending over the top to host extravagant entertainment and special celebrations.  Haydn, would become his third most highly paid official, after the property manager and the personal physician of the Prince. Not a solicitor in sight. This financial ranking shows the important status Haydn had gained and the high esteem in which he was held. Even more magnificent than the investiture of Prince Nikolaus was the wedding of his eldest son

the following year. For that occasion, in 1763, Haydn wrote his first opera for the Esterházy court, Acide.

Here I am going to quote from my earlier article from six years ago when I summed up Haydn’s thirty year stint with Esterhazy in one paragraph as follows:

“His years with the Esterhazys were contented and busy. His duties which he took in his stride included all matters musical.  He attended on the Prince twice a day to discuss the musical requirements.  He was in charge of the purchase of musical instruments, looked after the library, edited the music of others, took the Sunday services at the organ, rehearsed the orchestra, became their virtual shop steward in handling their grievances, took choir practices, gave music lessons, rehearsed operas both those which he wrote and those of others.  In the evening, there were performances of the music including at one time 150 opera performances a year. And on top of this he composed a bit of music including a weekly baryton trio especially for the Prince to play, about 70 quartets, numerous sonatas, about 80 symphonies, various concertos and masses. He also found time to carry on an affair over 12 years with Luigia Polzelli, a rather untalented Italian opera singer, with a much older asthmatic husband, and who claimed Haydn to be the father of her second son. Little wonder he would return home to the moans of his unmusical and querulous wife – if she was around –  and lucky for there to be left out a plate of cold wiener schnitzel”.

Let us take a closer look. In 1764 Prince Nikolaus travelled to Paris over which he was enraptured, none more than for the Palace of Versailles. This gave him ideas of his own. On the south easterly shore of Lake Neusiedl the Esterhazy family owned a hunting lodge. Prince Nikolaus was especially fond of this place and decided to transform the building into a splendid palace to become the Hungarian Versailles. It would be positioned within a waterlogged corner of the lake to be called “Esterhaza”. It was substantially completed within two years and would include an opera house, a puppet theatre and other buildings, making it a cultural centre. During the summer months Esterhaza was to become the centre of Haydn’s activities.

Not so for poor old Werner, the kapellmeister. He would never have made it for the new venture as he died that year, 1766. Haydn hardly needed to step into his shoes as he was de facto wearing them already, except for church music which Haydn was happy to take on.  He was given a new three year contract, renewable at will by the prince, an arrangement which continued until the Prince’s death in 1790.  After that Haydn would still be retained to write masses and would go on to receive a pension for life. It was only after Haydn had become kapellmeister that he purchased the little house in Eisenstadt next to the monastery. Unfortunately, the house burnt down twice, the problem with candles most likely.  The Prince had it rebuilt at his own expense, one indication of how much he appreciated his kapellmeister.

After the transfer of the Court to Esterhaza , Haydn turned his attention back to opera with “La canterina” (1766), “Lo speziale” (1768) and “Le pescatrici” (1769). Haydn is of course known for his symphonies, string quartets, sonatas, other chamber music and masses but not for his operas of which he wrote 15 for performance at Esterhaza. Between 1780 and1790 he conducted over a thousand opera performances.  Gustav Mahler almost would burn himself out as a composer and conductor but Haydn in his time seemed to have managed effortlessly.

Maria Theresa is supposed to have commented “If I want to hear good opera I must come to Eszterháza”. Given that she only went on one occasion for two days in 1773, she might as well have suggested Glyndebourne instead. The great celebrations for that occasion were reported thus:

“On the first day, there was a banquet (at which three gamebirds, killed with one shot by Haydn, were on the Empress’s plate), the inspection of the Park, a performance of Haydn’s opera “L’infedeltà delusa” in the opera house, followed by a fancy-dress ball which lasted till dawn.  During an intermission in the ball the Prince showed the imperial party his new Chinese Pleasure house.  The walls were covered with mirrors which reflected the light of innumerable Chinese lanterns and candles.  Haydn and the orchestra played a symphony and other works. The main ball took place in a 40 metre long Chinese gallery adjoining the opera house.  Eleven chandeliers and 600 candles illuminated the room and the musicians were dressed in Chinese costume”.  The next evening’s entertainment started with a specially composed marionette opera by Haydn. “The auditorium was flanked on both sides by caves domed with rockery and sea shells in the rocaille style. Some of the caves were embellished with fresco paintings, others with miniature fountains. The puppet opera was followed by a festive supper after which the Prince led the Imperial party through an avenue illuminated with coloured Chinese lanterns to the site of a spectacular firework display.  Once seated the Empress lit the first fuse.  After the fireworks, an outdoor ball took place in a special arena, lit by more than 20,000 Chinese lanterns and with over a thousand young peasants performing local dances”

Prince Nikolaus himself had his own favourite instrument which he played called the “Baryton” (viola di bordone), It was already obsolete but he required his Kapellmeister to write music for the instrument. The baryton was similar to the cello, but it not only had strings on the front to play but also had them attached to the neck at the back of the instrument so as to be plucked. Haydn composed some 125 trios for baryton, viola and cello, almost on a weekly basis, numerous solo pieces, duets and instrumental music with solo parts for one, sometimes even two, barytons which Haydn himself learned to play.

It was only with the easing off from composing for the baryton that Haydn returned after some long period to the string quartet.  Esterharza has been described as damp and sodden in winter creating a depressing atmosphere and it was against this background that he wrote his first great set of string quartets, his opus 20s, known also as the Sun Quartets.  Tovey, the great critic, likened the opus 20’s for Haydn to the Eroica for Beethoven. Hitherto the quartet was dominated by the first violin or two violins but now they were moving into equality and fraternity. One can be forgiven for thinking that the opus 20’s must be early but in fact they were written in 1772. It is the opus numbering which is deceiving.  Previously Haydn’s works were not his to publish but he prevailed on the Prince to allow him to do so as others were beginning to filch them. Haydn engaged the publishers, Ataria, for his quartets and they attributed their own opus numbers when releasing them. Like the majority of Haydn’s quartets, the opus 20’s come as a compilation of six.  None of the individual quartets has a name but the package is called “The Sun Quartets”, not to be confused with “the Sunrise” opus 76 No 6.  This is not intended to represent Haydn bursting into sunlight but a somewhat darker hue than hitherto. The only reason for the name is that the front cover of the manuscript by Ataria contained a picture of a sun.

It is interesting that the best known works of composers are often those with names, like Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony.  Haydn’s works contain a number of interesting appellations like “How Do You Do” in his Opus 33’s.  I have myself accorded to Op 20 No 4 a sub-title of my own which I hope will cotton on.  I call it “the Bus Conductor” because, in the scherzoid last movement there keeps being repeated a short staccato phrase followed by a curious buzzing, just like a bus conductor pressing the bell and presumably calling out “Hold very tight please”.  Haydn would not of course have known what a bus conductor was; nor perhaps might some of the younger members of our group.

Ten years after the Opus 20’s came the Opus 33’s. In December 1781 Haydn gave musical instruction to Maria Feodorovna, the wife of Grand Duke (later Tsar Paul I) of Russia. The string quartets from Op. 33 published a short time later are dedicated to the grand duke and are consequently known as the “Russian” quartets. 

There is something wonderfully original and improvisatory in all of Haydn’s music giving each work a unique freshness.  One always finds new ideas appearing, strange expressions and never the feeling of “I have heard this before”.  His quartets have a classical form but never is there a feeling that each work has been written to fit the same template apart perhaps the minuets when they come from the stable of the hotel owning O’Reilly, as to which Matthew himself will enlighten your curiosity!!

In tandem with all this, Haydn had his workplace routine and his private life. He would have made a good tightrope walker. His position placed him in charge of his band of players to ensure their discipline but at the same time he was their trusted spokesman for which he got the nickname of Papa Haydn. Best known of course is the story of his symphony number 45 (“Farewell”).  On that occasion, the summer season at Esterhaza had become extended into October when it was becoming damp and cold and the musicians fed up with not knowing when they would return to Vienna and their families. Haydn, instead of relaying their grumps to the Prince, added a coda to the end of his new symphony where, one by one, the musicians blew out their candle and left the stage until only two violins were left playing.  The Prince got the message and next day everybody had packed up and were on their way back! I imagine it would have taken even Haydn just a little time to write the music, rehearse it, or for the wind down to be effected so quickly. There is no doubt that it happened but still it has probably been dolled up a bit.

No doubt Haydn had his dalliances. In 1779 Luigia Polzelli, a 29 year old singer and her elderly asthmatic husband, a violinist, were engaged at Esterhaza. Haydn appears to have been instrumental in extending their stay beyond their shelf life. Numerous letters show that Luigia became Haydn`s mistress. She was not apparently possessed of a particularly beautiful voice, but she did have other assets, enough for Haydn to arrange her arias as advantageously for her as possible. Eventually she gave birth to a baby boy said by her to be Haydn’s. Her husband, Antonio, died in 1791, by which time Haydn was in London, and she returned to Italy. They never saw each other again. Haydn did however provide her with financial support and, after his return to Vienna, took on responsibility for both of her sons.

As one moves into the 1780’s changes were taking place.  Although he might have been the last to realize it, Haydn’s reputation was spreading internationally.  Guests were prepared to pay to get into Eisenstadt or Esterhaza to see and hear the great Haydn. In 1780 Haydn received his first major distinction from abroad. The Academy at Modena nominated him to be an honorary member. Orders for compositions arrived from various European countries. From Cádiz came a commission for the orchestration of his quartets, The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross. In France Haydn compositions were being widely circulated. The Paris Symphonies Nos. 82-87 and Symphonies Nos. 88-92 were ordered by le Comte d`Ogny , initiator of the Concerts de la Loge Olympique and a freemason. As we have seen Haydn was beginning to be allowed some freedom to publish his own creations and these became nice little earners. Here Haydn displayed an ability for a touch of double dealing, tch, tch, tch.  He was not averse to selling a score to one punter (his opus 64 quartets) and then doing the same with another, tch, tch, tch!  Well, if one was in Paris and another in London, who would know anyway?

Haydn and Mozart are thought likely to have first met late in 1782. There is written record of their playing in a quartet together, Haydn, first violin; Dittersdorf, second violin; Vanhal, cello and Mozart, viola. Perhaps it should have been called the Composers Quartet! Haydn was then 50 and Mozart 26. We do not know what prompted Mozart but he wrote six quartets which he dedicated to Haydn. Mozart had written string quartets and by then would have known and likely to have played the opus 33’s with their composer. How did Haydn re-act to these quartets? The evidence is contained in the famous letter he wrote to Leopold Mozart.  “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name: He has taste, and, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.” This, coming from the greatest composer alive, was praise indeed and meant. It was Mozart who introduced Haydn into freemasonry in which Haydn had expressed an interest and which was increasingly popular at the time. In February 1785, he was inducted as a member of the True Harmony lodge. It was the following day, after Haydn`s acceptance, that the private play through of Mozart’s Haydn quartets took place.

As the 1780’s came to an end, Haydn expressed his restlessness in letters to Marianne von Genzinger, the physican’s wife.  Theirs was a platonic relationship but which one feels might have been otherwise had she given him half a chance. London had beckoned but one suspects that Haydn would never have moved on. His choice was made for him by the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790 and the accession of Prince Paul Antony II. He had decided to cut out the lavish expenditure and to let Haydn go. Notwithstanding, he did retain him on full salary for life.  The way was now open for Haydn to consider the offers previously turned down.

The impresario and violinist, Johann Peter Salomon, happened to be in Cologne at the time seeking out new talent for the 1791 London season. On learning of the death of Prince Nikolaus, he travelled post haste from Cologne to Vienna. There he introduced himself to Haydn. “I am Salomon from London and I have come to fetch you”.