Franz Joseph Haydn, was born in 1732, in Rohrau, on the Austrian-Hungarian border. At the age of five, he was sent to Vienna to live with a cruel uncle, where in between floggings he learnt the violin, clavier and kettledrum. Three years later, he became a chorister in St Stephen’s Cathedral Vienna. He stayed here until aged seventeen, sacked allegedly for cutting off the pigtail of a fellow chorister. After a period of near destitution, the young Haydn was engaged as music teacher to the ten year old daughter of a wealthy neighbour, impressed by the sound of his playing heard through the walls of their apartment block. Through this family, the young Joseph was introduced to the musical world of Vienna, and took composition lessons with the distinguished musician, Nicola Porpora.
Meanwhile, he fell in love with one of his music pupils however, his affection was not returned, and his beloved decided to become a nun. Haydn’s first major composition, Salve Regina in E major, was written for her induction ceremony. His subsequent marriage to her older sister was not a success. Maria Anna showed little interest in his music, and was even said to have lined her pastry tins with his manuscripts. Haydn seems to have thrown himself into his music, and possibly the arms of other female pupils, as a means of escape. In 1761, he was recruited to the court of the Esterházys, so beginning a period of service to Prince Paul Anton, a capable amateur musician, and his successors that would endure for over thirty-years.
In 1790, Haydn met German-born violinist and international impresario, Johann Salomon, who persuaded him to come to England. After bidding a tearful farewell to his friend Mozart, whom he would never see again, Haydn set off for London in December 1791. Salomon commissioned a series of twenty concerts, each to include a first performance of a new composition. The initial commission specified six new symphonies, for which he was to be paid £300. London society took him to its heart, and he also was received by the Prince of Wales. He was persuaded to return for a second series of concerts in 1794; that was, by all reports, an even greater success. In between conducting, composing and teaching, he was given a doctorate by the University of Oxford, and was received by the King, becoming in today’s terms, something of a major celebrity.
It was the last of the twelve symphonies composed for the two London concert series, the D major, however, that eventually became known as the “London”. Haydn referred to it simply as “the twelfth”, although it was also the 104th and last symphony that he ever wrote. It was first performed in the early summer of 1795. It is in four movements: an allegro, an andante, a minuet and trio, and a Finale.
Several of the other symphonies composed for the London concerts were also given names, including “The Surprise”, which includes a sudden loud chord in a quiet movement, the Drum Roll, the Clock, the Military and the Miracle, so named because no one was harmed by a chandelier that came crashing into the auditorium during a performance in 1795.
George III tried to persuade Haydn to stay permanently in England, and he was even offered accommodation in Windsor Castle. However, he decided to spend his remaining years back in Austria and returned in 1795, once again in the service of the Esterházys. He died in Vienna on the 31st May, 1809, two weeks after the city was seized by Napoleon’s army.
Despite his difficult start in life, and unhappy personal life, Haydn was once able to say: of himself. “A secret feeling within me whispered: “There are but few contented and happy men here below. Grief and care prevail everywhere; perhaps your labours may one day be the source for which the weary and worn, or the man burdened with affairs, may derive a few moments’ rest and refreshment”.