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Father of the Symphony: Joseph Haydn

By February 2, 2023No Comments
Portrait of Joseph Haydn
Portrait of Austrian composer and Freemason Joseph Haydn, c. 1791

Musicologist James Webster described Brother Joseph Haydn as, “the Enlightenment ideal of the honnête homme (honest man): the man whose good character and worldly success enable and justify each other. His modesty and probity were everywhere acknowledged (Er Services,”

A contemporary and friend of renowned composers such as Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn left a profound impact on western music. He also was a good man and an exemplary Freemason in his time. Not only was he known in public life for his honesty, but he also was deeply spiritual and dug into his faith for inspiration.  

Having written over 100 symphonies in his life, it is fitting that he became known as the “Father of the Symphony,” and as the principal architect of the classical style of music. Like countless other Freemasons, Brother Haydn left an indelible mark on history with his commitment to his craft while being a man of stand-up character.


Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732, in Rohrau, Austria. His father, Mathias Haydn, was a wheelwright and prominent citizen in their small village. His mother, Maria, was a former cook in the palace of a local noble, Count Harrach, the presiding aristocrat of Rohrau. Mathias, who had taught himself the harp, loved to play folk songs and exposed young Joseph to the wonders of music at a young age.  

His parents understood that the young boy had an innate talent for music but that while he lived in Rohrau, he would have limited opportunity to train formally. And so, when Joseph turned six, his parents accepted a proposal for him to become an apprentice in the house of their relative Johann Matthias Frankh, the schoolmaster and choirmaster in Hainburg. Still just a child, Joseph left home to begin his musical training under Frankh. It was the last time he lived with his parents.

He spent his childhood immersed in the study and performance of music. While living with Frankh, he learned to play the harpsichord and violin and began singing treble parts in the church choir. In 1739, Haydn’s singing garnered the attention of Georg von Reutter, the music director at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Reutter was visiting Hainburg to find new choristers for his choir. After passing the audition for Reutter, Joseph left Frankh’s home for Vienna where he would spend nearly a decade as a chorister. 

In the Kapellhaus

Upon arriving in Vienna, young Joseph moved in with Reuter into the Kapellhaus next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. During this time, he lived with Reutter, the choirmaster’s family, and several other choirboys. The cathedral was a significant musical hub in Europe at the time, and despite still being a child, Joseph essentially became a professional musician as a member of the choir. He was instructed in voice, violin, and keyboard, gradually learning music theory between his schooling and his time as a choirboy. 

While he was a naturally gifted musician, Haydn’s real motivation to be a great singer was hunger. He later told his biographer Albert Dies that neither Frankh nor Reutter adequately fed or clothed him. But when he was invited to perform before Vienna’s aristocrats, he was usually rewarded with meals. 

Eventually, nature would catch up to Haydn, and by 1749, at age 17, his voice dropped, and he lost the ability to sing his high choral notes. It was only a matter of time before he was expelled from the choir. Empress Maria Theresa complained to Reutter about the sound of his voice, and then, after Haydn pranked a fellow chorister, Reutter dismissed him. 

Photo of Morzin Palace in the Czech Republic
Morzin Palace, the home of Count Karl Joseph Morzin, Haydn’s first employer

The Freelancer

Fortunately for Joseph, his friend, Johann Michael Spangler, took him in rather than let him be turned out onto the street. Haydn spent several months with the Spangler family while he began his career as a freelance musician. He had no money, but he scraped by working musical odd jobs, including teaching and playing the violin. 

This was another formative era in the life of young Joseph Haydn. While he worked and supported himself as a music teacher and street serenader, he also rigorously studied music theory, counterpoint, and harmony. He composed his own musical works and was eventually noticed in 1752 by Italian composer and singing teacher Nicola Porpora. Haydn took a job working as Porpora’s assistant in exchange for lessons in composition.

Now a full-time musician and composer, his knowledge and skills gradually increased. The public took notice after he composed the opera Der Krumme Teufel, “The Limping Devil.” Although it was well received, the opera was censored and closed for its offensive content, but it served to increase his fame. Haydn’s reputation continued to grow during the 1750s as he freelanced for the court of Vienna. 

The local aristocrats took notice of his skill and gave him their patronage, a crucial development for his aspirations as a composer. Countess Thun took him on to provide her with singing and keyboard lessons, and Baron Carl Josef Fürnberg hired Haydn to compose at his country estate, Weinzierl. It was here in 1756 Haydn wrote his first string quartets, which delighted his audiences. He wrote more and, the following year secured his first full-time job composing for Count Morzin to the tune of 200 florins a year. Here he assumed control of an orchestra for the first time, conducting 16 musicians. As the composer for Morzin, he wrote his first symphony, dropping indications of his unique musical inventions that were to come. 

Portrait of Joseph Haydn conducting a string quartet
Portrait of Joseph Haydn conducting a string quartet.

In the Esterházy court

By 1761, Joseph’s hard work paid off, and he was appointed as court musician for the influential Esterházy family. They were among the wealthiest families in all of the Austrian empire and had a history of supporting music. He spent the next 30 years working in this role, perfecting a composition style that was truly unique. 

In this role, Haydn conducted the orchestra, led daily rehearsals, and was in charge of all musical personnel. He was quickly renowned for his positive attitude and superb people skills. 

Haydn carried out his duties extremely well and revealed tact, good nature, and skill in dealing with people. His compositions immediately struck the Esterházys, and all the aristocracy by extensions, for their innovative sound. He later said that working at the Esterházy palace isolated him from the musical trends developed by other composers, and he was “forced to become original.”

In particular, Prince Miklós, the head of the Esterházy family, celebrated Haydn’s musical contributions. The prince was committed to nurturing Haydn’s craft, and soon the composer was creating operas, symphonies, string quartets, and other chamber music for the nobleman. During this time, as part of the prince’s entourage, Haydn developed a close friendship with another influential composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Inspired by each other’s inventive music, Mozart later said it was from Haydn he learned to create quartets and even dedicated several of them to Joseph. The two played in string quartets together, and in 1785, Mozart introduced him to Freemasonry. Brother Haydn joined the same Masonic lodge as Mozart in Vienna: the “Zur wahren Eintracht.” (True Concord)

Haydn’s Celebrity

Following the death of Prince Miklós in 1790, his son, Prince Antal, became the head of the family. Antal did not share his father’s love for music and dismissed all his court musicians except for Haydn. Haydn continued to receive his salary in honor of his many years spent serving the family, but he was no longer required to appear at court and prepare music.   

Ready to explore more of the world, Haydn journeyed to London, where he conducted a series of orchestral concerts and continued to compose. The English were enraptured by Haydn, hailing him as a genius. He was energized by their praise and wrote some of his best-known work, including the Surprise, Military, Drumroll, and London symphonies.

Here he spent 18 months writing enthusiastically before next visiting Germany, where he met a young composer named Ludwig van Beethoven. Clearly, the two connected, and they decided Beethoven would move to Vienna to study under Haydn. Of Beethoven, Haydn wrote: “Beethoven will one day be considered one of Europe’s greatest composers, and I shall be proud to be called his teacher(Britannica,”

Haydn was now a celebrity in Vienna and beyond. He would return to England once more for a year in 1794 to work and write. Given the luster the nation had for his creations, it’s no surprise Haydn said he was never happier than during his time in Britain. 

The Twilight Years

When Joseph returned to Vienna in 1795, Prince Anton’s successor, Nikolaus II, was eager to revive the music of the court. Haydn again served as Kapellmeister for Esterházy, albeit on a part-time basis. Although his health began failing, he never ceased throwing himself into work. During his final years in Vienna, he wrote copiously, including six masses and nine string quartets.  

By 1803, Haydn’s health had finally deteriorated enough that he could no longer compose. He spent the next few years in ill health, forced to abandon lingering projects he was writing and cared for by his servants. He was a celebrity in Vienna and regularly received visitors and public honors for the city’s nobility. He passed away peacefully at home on May 31, 1809. 

Want to learn more about other musical Masons? Read our blogs on Irving Berlin and Mozart!