Unlikely greatness: Joseph Haydn as a child

Birthplace of Joseph Haydn, Rohrau (Vienna, c.1820)

Birthplace of Joseph Haydn, Rohrau (Vienna, c.1820)

In the middle of the eighteenth century, peasant boys born in villages tended to remain peasant villagers for the rest of their lives. Musicians of any social class usually came from musical families. Joseph Haydn, born to a wheelwright and a cook in the Austrian village of Rohrau, seems an unlikely candidate to become a musician at all, let alone become wealthy and internationally famous.

His father, Mathias, could not read music, but learned to play the harp by ear. Singing songs while playing the harp, or playing harp while the family sang, was a favorite pastime. Visitors might also be invited to sing along. One such, Johann Mathias Franck, was the local school teacher and led the choir at the local church.
Perhaps he almost qualifies as family; his wife was Mathias Haydn’s stepsister.


When Joseph Haydn was 5, Franck noticed that he accompanied himself with a stick, as if he were playing violin. He also “bowed” with accurate rhythm. Franck suggested that he could teach the young boy music at his school, located in the nearby and larger village of Hainburg. His parents agreed, and the boy moved in with Franck and his wife.

Schooling was quite haphazard in those days and mainly revolved around church services. Reading, writing, and music seemed important enough for careful instruction, but not arithmetic. In those days, beating school boys was an ordinary event, as if it helped them learn better. Haydn would later recall that Franck gave him more beatings than food.

Franck taught him singing, of course. He served as a choirboy at the church in Hainburg. Franck eventually gave him instruction on violin and harpsichord as well. These instruments were the normal foundation for any instrumentalist, but young Haydn also learned to play the drum under rather odd circumstances.

Franck’s regular drummer died shortly before an important procession. Apparently no suitable adult was available to take over, so Franck taught Haydn the basics. Haydn practiced by inverting a breadbasket on a chair.

Alas, it was one thing for a small child to learn to play drums, but he was too small to carry one while playing. If an adult carried it for him, he would be too short to reach it. Franck eventually found a hunchback to carry the drum, which caused some probably not very respectful merriment among the spectators. Haydn remained fascinated with drums throughout his life. That fascination bore fruit in the timpani parts he wrote in his orchestral music.


In the summer of 1739, after Haydn had stayed with Franck for two years, Georg Reutter came to Hainburg to visit his cousin, the local priest. Reutter had recently become the leader of music at St. Stephen’s, Vienna’s cathedral. As such, he was always on the lookout for new choirboys. His cousin recommended seven-year-old Haydn.

Reutter asked the boy if he could trill. Haydn responded than not even Franck could do that. But after Reutter demonstrated the technique, Haydn was able to perform it correctly on his second attempt. Very pleased, Reutter gave him a plate of cherries.

Life in the school for choristers at St. Stephen’s bore a remarkable similarity to that at Hainburg’s church. Although the imperial cathedral was certainly wealthier than the village church, Haydn didn’t eat much better there. (A young woman, Maria Theresia had recently become empress. Other powers did not approve of a woman as ruler of the empire, so her accession triggered the War of Austrian Succession.)

Instruction was similarly haphazard, but the quality of both the music and performance naturally excelled anything Haydn had ever experienced. He learned a lot by example, if not by any systematic teaching.

The choirboy and the empress

Haydn's empress,  Maria Theresia

Young Maria Theresia / Martin van Meytens (1736)

The sense of mischief and irrepressible joy that characterizes Haydn’s music was clearly evident in his childhood. In 1745, the St. Stephen’s choir performed for the Empress Maria Theresia outside her Schönbrunn Palace. The palace was so new that the scaffolding had not yet been removed.

After the performance, the now 13-year-old Haydn and some of his choir mates decided to climb the scaffolding. Imagine the sound of a group of children on a modern playground. That’s the racket that greeted the empress, and she angrily shouted out her window, ordering them to get down and promising a whipping to anyone who climbed on the scaffolding again.

The next day, Haydn, and only Haydn, climbed the scaffolding again. The empress noticed and ordered Reutter to punish him severely. To my knowledge, this incident marks the only time when a reigning monarch ordered the thrashing of a famous composer!

Meanwhile, Haydn was always musical and confident in his singing, but his voice was never known for its beauty or power. By the time he was sixteen, the empress began to complain to Reutter that when young Haydn sang solos, he was “hoarse as a crow.”

By the way, Maria Theresia came from a long family of distinguished musician-rulers. Three earlier Habsburg emperors were fine composers. If her father composed, nothing has survived, but he was a fine harpsichord player. He occasionally conducted this court orchestra.

He gave musical advice to many of Europe’s most famous musicians. Unlike what you might expect, they received it with gratitude. Maria Theresia herself was known for her beautiful singing voice. Therefore, when she made disparaging comments about Haydn’s changing voice, Reutter began to look for a good reason to dismiss him.

Haydn’s irrepressible sense of humor provided it. He acquired a pair of brand new scissors, and the boy in front of him wore his hair in a pigtail. Haydn couldn’t resist cutting it off. Reutter had him punished severely and turned him out to make his own living as best he could.

The story of Haydn’s life could have easily turned out badly and ended quickly, but of course, it didn’t. He became internationally famous, universally regarded as the best composer in the world. (Well, he himself named Mozart, but he was known in many more places than Mozart.)

In 1773 he had occasion to meet Maria Theresia again when she visited his employer, the Prince at Eszterháza. He or someone else reminded her of the child on the scaffolding. She observed that it had obviously done him some good.

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Haydn – The Child, Youth and Man / Frederic S. Law
The Life of Haydn / David Wyn Jones
Illustrations are public domain.

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