“I love him too much.” —Joseph Haydn, about his friend Wolfgang Mozart

haydn mozart

“Joseph Haydn with Mozart,” by V. Janschiek

Wolfgang Mozart and Joseph Haydn were the two masters of the Classical Period of music history; indeed, they helped to define that age, by giving shape to its central compositional forms: the symphony, the concerto, the string quartet. Both composers produced masterpieces in all these genres. We think of the twelve “London Symphonies” of Haydn, the final three symphonies of Mozart, Haydn’s Horn Concerto, Mozart’s last 17 solo piano concertos, and both composers’ late string quartets. Though separated by 25 years in age, the two men quickly became good friends upon their meeting in Vienna in 1781. At the time, the forty-nine-year-old Haydn was in the employ of the Esterhazy family just outside the city, where he had provided music for the royal court for the past 20 years; the twenty-five-year-old Mozart had just arrived in Vienna to try to make his fortune in the capital city of the Empire. Over the next decade, they would become mutual admirers, each influencing the other musically. Mozart, for example, learned much from Haydn’s writing for string quartet, dedicating his six quartets, op. 10, to the elder master; Haydn’s later symphonies owe a debt to his younger contemporary as they show Mozart’s influence, particularly in the more prominent part given to the woodwind instruments.

The fact that the two men became fast friends might be surprising given that they were, despite their shared love and gift for music, polar opposites in many ways. As musicologist Robert Greenberg says:

Haydn’s musical development slow and laborious; Mozart’s was by comparison almost instantaneous. Compositionally, Haydn was a comparatively late-bloomer. If he had died like Mozart at the age of 35, not a single composition for which we know him today would have been created…. Haydn was a competent performer; Mozart was one of the great virtuosi of his age…. Haydn’s life was precisely regulated; Mozart’s was disordered and spontaneous. Haydn was a neat freak; Mozart was a slob. Haydn rarely sought the limelight; Mozart… adored attention and lived his life in the public eye. Haydn was almost invariably calm and cheerful; Mozart experienced extraordinary mood swings.

Joseph Haydn, forensic reconstruction by Thomas Becker

Though Haydn was unfailingly affable, generous, and humble, with nary a bad word to say about anyone, even he could be annoyed by certain people, as was the case with his erstwhile student, Ludwig van Beethoven, whose cantankerous and boastful nature led Haydn to nickname him “the Grand Mogul.” Mozart too could be a difficult personality, possessing an ego that irritated many rivals and associates. Like Beethoven, he was not shy about expressing his high opinion of his own talents in comparison to those of his rivals, rarely missing an opportunity to mock other composers and performers, even through some of the pieces he wrote. Mozart’s “Musical Joke,” for example, pokes fun at the compositional skills and performing talents of his contemporaries, and in the dinner scene near the end of his opera Don Giovanni, Mozart has the eponymous character and his servant Leporello subtly mock the talents of rival composers, as their music is played by a band hired by the Don for his entertainment.

But when it came to Haydn, Mozart had nothing but respect for the older man and his work. Indeed, Haydn may have been the only composer, past or present, whom Mozart considered to be worthy of his own talents. Indeed, he would not permit ill to be said of “Papa Haydn” in his presence. Once when a minor composer criticized a section of one of Haydn’s string quartets as he and Mozart listened to a performance—”Well, I would not have done it that way”—Mozart erupted, “Neither would have I. But that’s because neither of us would have thought of such an excellent idea! In fact, you could melt the two of us together, and we would still not add up to a Haydn!”

Haydn in turn brushed aside any criticisms leveled at Mozart in his presence. On one occasion, a group of musicians was offering criticisms of Don Giovanni, when they turned to Haydn for his opinion. “Gentlemen,” Haydn intoned. “I cannot settle these arguments, but I can only say that Mozart is the greatest living composer.” Though the humble Haydn took some quiet pride in his abilities as an opera composer, after hearing Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, he knew that he could not compete with Mozart in this musical arena. So when a commission was proposed to him by a Prague nobleman, Haydn consented only if the performance were to be given in private, as he believed his effort could not but be considered inferior by the public at large. To Mozart’s father, Leopold, Haydn declared, “Sir, your son is the greatest composer known to me, either personally or by reputation.” And after Mozart’s death in 1791, Haydn wrote to a friend:  “Mozart was a truly a great musician. Friends often flatter me that I have some genius. But he stood far above me.”

Haydn was in London, on his first of two wildly successful musical tours in that city, when news reached him of his the death of the thirty-five-year-old Mozart. Still prostrate with grief weeks later, he wrote to a mutual friend: “I was for some time quite beside myself over his death. I cannot believe that Providence should so quickly have called an irreplaceable man into the other world.”

Haydn paid tribute to Mozart in the second movement of a symphony he wrote for his London tour a few weeks after his friend’s death. The Adagio of Symphony No. 98 begins with a close quotation of the beginning of the Agnus Dei of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, and the transition from the exposition to the development quotes from the second, slow movement of Mozart’s famed “Jupiter” Symphony. Moreover, the sombre character of the entire movement—surely the most deeply expressive of any movement in Haydn’s symphonic oeuvre—clearly is meant as an elegy to, in Leopold Mozart’s works, “the miracle that God allowed to be born in Salzburg.”

In 1807, more than 15 years after Mozart died, some mutual friends of the two composers were visiting Haydn and began reminiscing about Mozart. Haydn suddenly broke down and wept. “Forgive me, I must ever weep—ever weep—when I hear the name of my Mozart.”

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