Franz Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, on March 31, 1732. He began his musical career as a choirboy at St. Stephen’s church in Vienna, but when his voice changed his services were no longer needed there. In the 1750s he worked as a free lance musician teaching private lessons, accompanying singers on the keyboard, and playing violin and organ at various churches in Vienna.
In 1761 Haydn’s career took a giant step forward when he was hired as composer and orchestra director for Prince Nikolaus Esterházy who was one of the most powerful and wealthy men in Hungary. Nikolaus also loved music and was an important patron of the arts. Haydn worked for him for almost thirty years and although he did not get rich in the process he had steady employment and was guaranteed performance of all of his works.
When Nikolaus died Haydn kept his job and was employed by the Esterházy family, but he was allowed to travel to other parts of Europe. He made Vienna his home and also spent a few years in London. While there he composed twelve symphonies called, naturally, the “London Symphonies.” Haydn became somewhat of a star figure later in life and was probably more respected than any other composer in Europe. He received an honorary Doctor of Music degree from Oxford University.
Haydn was alive and composing for almost all of the classical era and was a major figure in developing that style. He was particularly important as a composer of symphonies and string quartets. He wrote a total of 104 symphonies and the development of his style can be heard by listening to these works.
Haydn’s music often had an element of humor and surprise. He frequently composed odd little twists and turns in his pieces to keep listeners on their toes. His “Surprise Symphony” moves along quietly and calmly until the orchestra plays a very loud note completely out of the blue. He wrote the piece particularly to poke fun at people who fall asleep in concerts, with the loud noise waking them from their slumber.