The Son Joseph Haydn Never Had

Joseph HaydnSince we already celebrated Cesar Chavez, this day can only go to one man (even though it is a rather good day for birthdays): Joseph Haydn. He is one of the greatest composers ever. He has been called “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet.” But it would probably be most accurate to call him father of chamber music, since he was the guy who really made it the center of classic music.

In some ways, he is a greater composer than Mozart, because Haydn for so important in defining the Classical style. I listen to more Mozart because he came later and effectively perfected the form. But what is really interesting about all this is that Haydn and Mozart were friends. But because they were separated by a generation (Haydn was 24 years older), there was no rivalry. They seem to have admired each other unreservedly.

I think that the younger composer saw in Haydn a father. Mozart’s own father was not very nice to him. He didn’t approve of Mozart’s career choice and he blamed him for the death of Mozart’s mother — who simply died on a trip with the composer; Mozart certainly wasn’t culpable. So Haydn was the good father that Mozart never had. In fact, Haydn told Mozart’s father, “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.” In typical form, the compliment was never passed on to Mozart, although I’m sure that Haydn must have said something similar to the greatest composer known to him.

As for Mozart’s feelings toward the older composer, it is clear that he idealized him. Mozart discouraged him him from taking a trip to England out of fear for his health. (It is ironic that Haydn not only survived the trip, but lived almost two decades beyond while Mozart died the next year.) There is also this very telling incident from Franz Xaver Niemetschek:

At a private party a new work of Joseph Haydn was being performed. Besides Mozart there were a number of other musicians present, among them a certain man who was never known to praise anyone but himself. He was standing next to Mozart and found fault with one thing after another. For a while Mozart listened patiently; when he could bear it no longer and the fault-finder once more conceitedly declared: “I would not have done that,” Mozart retorted: “Neither would I but do you know why? Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate.”

That’s incredibly sweet, especially coming from Mozart who was not a man inclined to underestimate himself. I think that Mozart was the child that Haydn never had. Or I’m just being sentimental, which would not be the first time. Regardless, they had a great friendship based in mutual admiration.

Since Haydn and Mozart sometimes played string quartets together and the younger composer was very much influenced by Haydn’s work in this area, here is the Houston based Meridian Ensemble String Quartet doing String Quartet Opus 77, Number 2:

Happy birthday Joseph Haydn!

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