Joseph Haydn is a cultural hero of not just Viennese art music, but Western art music as a whole. During his lifetime he was the most celebrated musician of his generation, his vocal works being as famous as his instrumental ones. Posthumously, he is best known for his late works and his ‘Creation’. The sheer volume of Haydn’s symphonies is impressive and elevates him to the position of the father of the classical symphony.
Haydn’s life before his employment at the Esterházy court was centred around music. He became a choir boy at a young age and was taught singing, keyboard and violin at the choir school, an experience which shaped and encouraged his musical intellect substantially, even without any formal composition training.
When his voice broke, he was dismissed from the choir school and started his career as a freelance composer, teacher and performer during the first half of the 1750s. When he moved to the Esterházy court his creativity increased dramatically. Very little about his day to day life has survived from this time, however we do known that as a person he was both earnest and humorous, and this musical persona is clear from his compositions. The nicknames given to many of his symphonies, correlate to features that listeners found to be full of wit, such as the ’Surprise Symphony’, the ‘Clock Symphony’ or the ‘Joke Quartet’ op. 33 no. 2. Haydn was also full of deep feeling he insisted that an important prerequisite for decent composition was to be able to sing a fluent melody and that his primary purpose in composing was to move the listener.