Michael Haydn shone as both performer and composer from an early age and became one of the most fêted musicians in Salzburg. He was born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, five years after his more famous brother, Franz Joseph. In 1745 Michael followed Joseph into the choir school of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, earning praise from the Empress for his beautiful voice.
By the age of 12 he was also deputising on the cathedral organ; after his voice broke he continued to play the organ and also studied composition. His first known work, the Missa SS Trinitatis (1754), is regarded as much more accomplished than his brother’s first essays in the genre.
After a period in the service of the Bishop of Grosswardein (now Oradea, Romania), Haydn moved in 1762 to Salzburg, where he would remain for the rest of his life. On 14 August 1763 he took his place as Konzertmeister at the court of Prince-Archbishop Sigismund, sailing past his colleague Leopold Mozart on the career ladder. Although his relationship with Leopold was not always easy, relations between the younger Mozart and Michael Haydn were cordial: Mozart admired and was directly inspired by the older man’s works, and they occasionally helped each other by composing in the other’s name.
In 1768 Michael Haydn married the singer Maria Magdalena Lipp, but in 1771 tragedy struck the couple when their only daughter died before her first birthday. Professional advancement, on the other hand, came easily: by 1777 Haydn was also organist of the Church of the Holy Trinity, and within a few years followed Mozart as organist of Salzburg Cathedral.
During the 1790s he became well known as a teacher, counting among his pupils Weber and Diabelli. Job offers from Eisenstadt and Florence reflect Haydn’s rising sphere of influence, and in 1804 he became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
In 1805 he became ill, putting what he hoped would be a temporary stop to work on a Requiem commissioned by the Empress. However, his health did not improve, and on 10 August 1806 Michael Haydn died, leaving for posterity well over 800 works, including more than 40 symphonies, 36 orchestral Masses, a handful of dramatic works and a dozen concertos.
Although his reputation was gradually eclipsed by those of his brother and Mozart, he was not entirely forgotten, as reflected by Schubert’s words from 1825: ‘I felt your calm, clear spirit flow over me, good Haydn, and even if I cannot be as calm and clear as you, then surely no one on earth reveres you as sincerely as I do.’
Profile © Alison Bullock