Classical 91.5

Happy Birthday, Michael Haydn!

Sep 14, 2017

Johann Michael Haydn (1727-1806)

  That’s right, Michael Haydn.

What?! There were TWO HAYDNS who were revered composers in the late 18th century? So much talent in one family! (Must have had smart and encouraging parents.)

September 14 marks the 280th birthday of the composer Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806).  Michael Haydn was a prolific composer of many different types of music, but best known for his fine sacred works written in Salzburg, which were widely distributed throughout Europe during his lifetime.  Despite his reputation as a first-rate composer, his fame quickly faded following his death, as the stars of the great Viennese Classical trinity of Joseph Haydn, W. A. Mozart, and Beethoven became brighter than all of their contemporaries.  

While to modern music connoisseurs Michael Haydn is recognized as the composer of a handful of sacred compositions, including his Requiem in C minor of 1771 which was a model for Mozart’s Requiem of 20 years later, some German and Latin Gradual and Offertory settings, and a few Masses, he is probably best known for his many connections to other prominent composers and figures. Here are a few examples—

  • Michael was the younger brother of Franz Joseph Haydn, whom he followed to the St. Stephen’s Choir School in Vienna.  Michael excelled at the Choir School, while Joseph had a reputation of being somewhat the prankster and not the best student. In 1802 it was announced that Michael would be succeeding brother Joseph as Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family in Eisenstadt.  However, Michael decided instead to remain in Salzburg, where he had served as a court composer, organist, and concertmaster since 1763. He died is Salzburg in 1806, surrounded by family and his students.
  • He was a friend and colleague of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  In 1767 Michael and the 11-year-old Amadeus, along with Anton Adlgasser, collaborated on music for a play given at the Salzburg Benedictine University.  Mozart’s dislike of the conditions he faced as a musician in the employ of Archbishop Hieronymous Graf von Colloredo is well documented, yet Michael Haydn seems to have thrived at his court.  When Mozart took up residence in Vienna in 1782, Michael replaced him as Salzburg’s court organist.  Mozart continued to seek out copies of Michael’s works, which he remarked were easily obtained.  Needing a symphony for his trip to Linz in 1783, Mozart “borrowed” one of Michael’s symphonies, adding a slow introduction and making some alterations to the first movement; this was published as Mozart’s Symphony No. 37 in G and was only discovered to have been Michael Haydn’s work about 100 years ago.


Inside the Salzburg Cathedral

  • Michael was a well-known, respected, and beloved teacher of composition.  Among his students were Sigismund Neukomm, who would later be brother Joseph’s star pupil, Anton Diabelli, best known as a Viennese publisher, and Carl Maria von Weber, whose fantastic imagination and gift for orchestral colors were foundational to the emerging Romantic style in the early years of the 19th century. Michael’s influence on Romanticism is also reflected in the writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann, who praised Michael’s sacred music above that of older brother Joseph’s.  Franz Schubert is known to have visited the grave of Michael Haydn in order to gain inspiration for writing sacred music. After one of these visits, Schubert wrote in a letter to his brother the following epitaph:

“I thought to myself, ‘May thy pure and peaceful spirit hover around me, dear Haydn! If I can ever become like thee, peaceful and guileless, in all matters none on earth has such deep reverence for thee as I have.’ (Sad tears fell from my eyes. . . .)”


This guest essay is by Michael Ruhling, Professor of Performing Arts in the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology and conductor of the RIT Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra.  He also teaches courses at the Eastman School of Music, and his essay on the symphonies of Michael Haydn is included in The Symphonic Repertoire, Vol. 1: The Eighteenth Century Symphony published by the Indiana University Press.

Michael Haydn's music will be performed later this fall in the inaugural concert of Ensemble PeriHIPsous – Rochester’s new “period” orchestra. The concert will be Friday, November 10th, 8pm at Christ Church Episcopal, East Ave.  Keep an eye out for more more about Michael Haydn's world and music, leading up to the November concert.