Joseph Haydn was born on March 31st, 1732 in the village of Rohrau in Lower Austria, a province of the Habsburg monarchy. This was arguably the most multinational, multicultural, multilingual and generally diverse great power that Europe had ever seen. Its then ruler, Charles VI, held sway over a great conglomeration of territories stretching from Ostend to Belgrade and from Prague to Palermo. It included all or part of the following present-day countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. As Sir Harold Temperley observed, the Habsburg monarchy was not so much a country as a continent all by itself. The most succinct illustration of this was provided by the trilingual signature of the monarchy's greatest military commander, Prince Eugene: Eugenio yon Savoie. Everyone who visited the capital Vienna was struck by the wonderful variety of languages, clothing and customs on display.
From the age of 29 until the day he died almost half a century later, Haydn was in the service of the Esterhazys, the greatest aristocratic dynasty in the monarchy. In the course of the previous century they had risen with amazing speed by helping to defeat their Habsburg overlords' two great enemies: the Protestants and the Turks. Although the Esterhazy family was Hungarian by origin, theirs was a world without national identity in which Italian, French or even Latin was as much used as German. Evidence of its cosmopolitanism can be seen in the visual vocabularies of their three main palaces--in Vienna, at Eisenstadt and at Esterhaza. It was at the last of these, built by Prince Nicholas 'The Magnificent' in the 1760s, that Haydn was to spend most of his time.
At all three palaces Haydn had access to an enormous collection of musical scores. They came from all over Europe but especially from Italy, the centre of the 18th-century musical world. Although Haydn was unusual among contemporary musicians in never actually travelling to Italy, the Vienna in which he received his early musical training was suffused with Italian music. In an autobiographical sketch written in 1776 he recalled that he had 'the good fortune to learn the true fundamentals of composition from the famous Porpora', the Neapolitan composer. But Vienna was also a city to which musicians from the Habsburg-ruled kingdom of Bohemia flocked, bringing with them their own distinctive sound. The incorporation of Slavonic melodies and rhythms was one of the many features of Haydn's music to win the later approval of Richard Wagner. Less often acknowledged but also powerful was the influence of the Protestant north. Haydn himself told one of his two contemporary biographers that he owed 'a great deal' to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Kapellmeister at Hamburg.
Of course what Haydn then did with this richly international mix was entirely individual. Tucked away in rural isolation at remote Esterhaza, with an excellent orchestra always on hand and writing for a musically sophisticated patron, Haydn could allow his powerful imagination full rein. As he himself put it:
My Prince was content with all my
works, I received approval, I could,
as head of an orchestra, make experiments,
observe what enhanced an
effect, and what weakened it, thus
improving, adding to, cutting away,
and running risks. I was set apart
from the world, there was nobody in
my vicinity to confuse and annoy
me in my course, and so I had to be
It turned out that what pleased Prince Nicholas also pleased the rest of Europe. Haydn's original contract stated that everything he wrote was the exclusive property of his patron. But it was not long before news of his talent began to spread, as manuscript copies of his keyboard sonatas and string quartets began to circulate. …