The (not so) secret life of Joseph Haydn

The Haydn of my childhood music lessons was a devout, benevolent fellow, diligently composing elegant works for posterity in the secluded haven of Esterháza.

Perhaps some fragment of this picture of Haydn continues to dwell in the back of my memory, though a recent foray into his history has produced a more complex and colorful illustration – Haydn as a shrewd self-promoter, an advocate for his fellow employees, a husband, an avid lover, a participant in vibrant intellectual life, judging from both letters to and from the composer himself, and what is revealed by his biographer, Albert Christoph Dies.

The following quote from Grove’s Dictionary of Music gives a glimpse of Haydn’s shrewd means of distributing his works:

“Haydn soon learnt to maximize his income by selling a given work in several countries, accepting a separate fee for each. Except in Vienna and London he often worked through a middleman. These activities were in many respects unregulated (modern copyright law being in its infancy); unauthorized ‘double copying’ was a constant danger, and everyone attempted to maximize his advantage – including Haydn, whose tactics were often unscrupulous, to say the least. He often earned his ‘little extra’ by selling manuscript copies of new works to private individuals; such ‘subscription’ copies still carried a certain prestige.”

The article continues,“His methods of exploiting multiple markets became a model for the next two generations of composers; he ‘taught’ it to Beethoven (who learnt his lesson well, including the unscrupulous aspects), and it was still used by Mendelssohn and Chopin.

“He was also adept at ‘marketing’. He described Symphonies nos.76–8 as ‘beautiful, impressive and above all not very long symphonies … and in particular everything very easy’, and his first authorized Viennese publication of orchestral music (late 1782) was devoted, not to symphonies, but to the ‘easier’ genre of the overture.”

Haydn valued his own talents as a composer, yet he certainly recognized the gifts of others, especially a certain contemporary. He said,

“If only I could impress Mozart’s inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the souls of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.”

Grove notes, “It is remarkable that his feelings were apparently marked neither by jealousy nor a compromise of his musical self-confidence, except possibly regarding opera; they had no effect on his productivity.”

However, his magnanimity was not extended to every one of his contemporaries, particularly his former student, Pleyel. Haydn once remarked that he had endeavored to give the public something new (in the form of the “Surprise” Symphony) so as not to be upstaged by Pleyel.

Reading up on these details of Haydn helps flesh him out as a real, once-living person instead of a venerated marble bust. At the same time, it doesn’t lessen my reverence for the great composer and the man.