Feud: Classical Vienna Style

Beethoven was notoriously crabby, as many geniuses seem to be—but not all. His one-time teacher, Haydn, was famous for his goodwill and affection. But what happens when an affable genius crosses paths with an insufferable genius? In the case of Beethoven and Haydn, the geniuses both ended with egg on their faces for the rest of us to enjoy hundreds of years later.


Beethoven's birth house in Bonn, Germany
Beethoven’s birth house in Bonn, Germany



In 1792, the 22-year old Beethoven moved to Vienna to begin his study and career seriously as a composer, leaving behind the Bonn of his childhood. A major coup of this move was the opportunity to study with Joseph Haydn, the single composer who most developed what is now called the “Classical” style. Haydn was not yet 60 but just returning from a triumphant visit to London, and was perhaps (after the 1791 death of Mozart) the most famous and important composer then alive.


Haydn the Sweetheart in 1792, the year he started teaching Beethoven when he wasn't busy as an 18th century rockstar
Haydn in 1792, the year he started teaching Beethoven when he wasn’t busy as an 18th century rockstar


“Papa” Haydn was a real sweetheart. (Let’s just leave out his relationship with his wife, for a moment.) He especially went out of his way to help budding composers, even when he didn’t have the time. Beethoven became his student, but it appears that Haydn was a little too busy being successful to work diligently with his new pupil. Beethoven soon turned to another composer, Johann Schenk, to go over assignments for which Haydn didn’t have the time. At this point it appears that Beethoven was trying to be respectful, since he apparently didn’t mention these clandestine teaching sessions to Haydn.


Haydn's first set of Canzonettas, composed during his first stay in London
Haydn’s first set of Canzonettas, composed during his first stay in London


The Honeymoon Period disintegrated rather quickly. Haydn suggested that Beethoven include “pupil of Haydn” on Beethoven’s written compositions. Um. I’ve never even met the guy, and I can tell you that was a bad idea. But the real breakdown occurred after a somewhat more public embarrassment.


Beethoven was having difficulty making ends meet in Vienna and was soon borrowing money from any friend who would lend. Sweetie Haydn did so. On Beethoven’s behalf, he then wrote to the Elector of Cologne, the man in charge of Beethoven’s funding. Haydn explained that Beethoven had only about 500 florins per annum to live in Vienna, provided quarterly. Most expenses occurring at the beginning of the year, this required Beethoven to borrow. Haydn humbly petitioned that Beethoven’s funding might be increased to about 1000 florins the next year (having lent Beethoven 500 florins himself). Of course, he asked all this in that sincere, Haydn-way of his:


While we are on the subject of Beethoven, Your Serene Electoral Highness will perhaps permit me to say a few words concerning his financial status… Your Serene Electoral Highness is no doubt yourself convinced that this sum was insufficient, and not even enough to live from; undoubtedly Your Highness also had your own reasons for choosing to send him into the great world with such a paltry sum… I think that if Your Serene Electoral Highness were to send him 1,000 florins for the coming year, your Highness would earn his eternal gratitude.


Haydn included in this correspondence five compositions of “my dear pupil” Beethoven to demonstrate Beethoven’s improvement since coming to Vienna, and thus the value of investing in the young man.


Two problems with that.


First, it turns out Beethoven wasn’t exactly honest with Haydn. While he did receive the equivalent of about 500 florins as funding to live in Vienna, Beethoven was also being paid his ordinary (pre-Vienna) salary of 400 florins—very nearly the sum total of what Haydn suggested he be paid!


Second, well… Let’s hear it in the Elector’s own words.


I received the music of the young Beethoven which you sent me, together with your letter. Since however, with the exception of the fugue, he composed and performed this music here in Bonn long before he undertook his second journey to Vienna, I cannot see that it indicates any evidence of his progress…


Four of the five compositions Haydn thought were composed while Beethoven was his pupil were actually dated from before Beethoven had even arrived in Vienna!


Although there is no historical record of how Haydn reacted to this letter, soon afterwards the two great composers parted ways. Previous talks of Beethoven accompanying Haydn on his next trip to London were smothered, and in 1794 Haydn took the trip without his dear pupil.


A first edition of the full score of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. Because we're talking about Beethoven.
A first edition of the full score of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor. 


In his later years, Beethoven always spoke very respectfully of Haydn, recognizing his influence. Classical music lovers, my question to you is this: how do you think Beethoven would have developed differently without Haydn? Classical music novices: what are your favorite works by these two?


15 Comments Add yours

  1. David Pine says:

    I feel like your question is incomplete. How would Beethoven developed without Haydn and… by himself? With another teacher? It’s hard to know, really. My guess is that if Beethoven were free to write his own music earlier(instead of assignments from Haydn) his romantic tendencies would have been accelerated and we would have more and larger pieces from him especially symphonic literature. But it’s hard to know, really.

    1. Mmm. Interesting. Personally, I disagree. There is strong evidence that what led to Beethoven’s real breaks with tradition was his increasing deafness. There’s a good summary of this idea under the “Genesis” section on this page:

  2. David Pine says:

    Oh, and I WANT that first edition score of Beethoven 5. How much?

  3. vanbraman says:

    I believe that we are fortunate that Haydn did not give his full attention to Beethoven. Because of this Beethoven reached out to others and the influence Haydn had over him was diminished.

    1. Ok, I’m sort of answering my own question, but the Classical Style was fully formed through Haydn. The sonata form, which Beethoven also uses heavily, was brought to its maturity by Haydn. I think without Haydn to establish the rules, Beethoven would have had a harder time figuring out ingenious ways to break them. But then again, I’m of the school that you have to know the rules to break them.

      1. vanbraman says:

        Rebecca, I think that we are actually thinking a bit alike. I believe that he was with Haydn enough to learn the style and the rules, but not long enough that he was uncomfortable with breaking those rules. He would have been able to learn the rules without Haydn, but I am sure that learning them from the master gave him a much stronger foundation and understanding of them. When you understand the rules, they are easier to break :-).

  4. Jon Parker says:

    I hope you realize that I got completely sidetracked after the first sentence of the third paragraph because I needed to find out what was up with Haydn and his wife.

    1. That makes me happy. First, Haydn and his wife deserve a whole post to themselves. Second, I led you into learning more about Haydn’s biography!

  5. Diana says:

    I want to know about the wife issue, also…

    Am educating myself on late Classical style, Sonata Allegro form, and Beethoven in general (prof.Robert Greenberg). (And so, just learned about all that you are speaking of- synchronicity :))

    Have all the symphonies, and more, but it’s the 5th that’s getting me emotional, this month. {So predictable, I’m sure, but still… it blows me away.}

    Non-musician here, but was just looking for the score ! (Can read treble clef from flute-playing in childhood.) Cool image.

    Great post.

  6. Jeff says:

    You always pick the most interesting topics! You know there has been a story circulating for years and years about how Franz Liszt brought Beethoven to tears of joy by playing one of his (Beethoven’s) pieces better than Beethoven could even play it himself. Allegedly, Beethoven then kissed Liszt on the cheek. Even though Beethoven -as you mentioned- was very moody and often angry, he had a soft spot for any young prodigy or virtuoso! The thing that I love most about Beethoven is that he started where Mozart left off (seriously, listen to how his symphonies and piano sonatas progressed throughout his life) and then continued forward with the Classical “genre” until he later revolutionized it and started the “Romantic” era.

    Now, to answer your question. I feel that the real question should be ‘How would Beethoven have developed differently if he had actually studied consistently, seriously, and long-term with Haydn?’ After all, Haydn was too busy for Beethoven to give him his full attention. Plus, later on the two had a bit of a “falling out”. I think that if Beethoven would have studied longer and received more attention and instruction from Haydn that he probably would have stuck more to his classical roots rather than veering off eventually into Romantic music. Yes, at first Beethoven followed Classical form very well. However, he later started to create new structures of music with stormy passages, dark chords, heavy accents, and fairly modern sounds. Furthermore, he concentrated more on the passion of his music rather than the strictness of and adherence to form. Once again, this is LATER Beethoven. Early Beethoven almost sounds like an extension of Mozart or Haydn. I think the previous sentence can be explained by the fact that Beethoven did study briefly with Haydn.

    Another thing that would be different if Beethoven had studied more (or longer) with Haydn would be that he would have probably been more prolific. Haydn wrote so many symphonies it is ridiculous! I believe he topped out at 104 of them! Meanwhile, Beethoven wrote 9 completed symphonies and a rumored unfinished 10th. This is because Beethoven was not like Haydn -and Mozart for that matter. Instead of simply writing something and being done with it, Beethoven spent a great deal of time making revisions to his works. He even threw some of his musical pieces in the garbage if they did not meet his standards. This all resulted in much fewer pieces. However, the pieces he did write were amazing. I feel that getting away from Haydn benefited Beethoven greatly. He developed into himself and his own style…..and thus was later inspired to set the groundwork for the Romantic Era.

    By the way, my favorite Beethoven pieces are his later piano sonatas because they pushed the boundaries of even the Romantic Era. If you haven’t listened to them, then do so because they are much different from his earlier ones….and they almost bring music into the Contemporary Era!

    PS: (To answer the question the way it was asked:) If Beethoven had never met Haydn then I think that his music would have been even more true to his own passionate and stormy personality. It would have pushed the boundaries of music even further. But at the same time, I almost feel that part of the reason why Beethoven eventually strayed away from Classical music may have been to rebel against Haydn. So, perhaps if the two had never met, Beethoven would have stuck entirely to classical. Wow…..Who knows?

  7. William says:

    Excellent subject, Rebecca; I really enjoyed this one. Both Haydn and Beethoven are especial favorites with me, and recordings of their works (virtually all of their compositions) are represented in my library, often with multiple recordings for comparison. When it comes to reading and listening to their music, I more often than not, choose Haydn… mostly because his one-time pupil’s music tends to be a bit more intense and vigorous than what I prefer as a complement for most books. This is not to imply Haydn is boring background music however; please don’t misunderstand me; there are marvelous melodies and harmonies to be found in his many symphonies and string quartets, and I never tire of his keyboard sonatas, or the beautiful treasures to be discovered within his trios. He of course established the standards others would follow, and I agree with you, one ought to have a firm understanding of the “rules,” before they can or should be bent, stretched, or broken. Thus, I think it most beneficial that Beethoven had the opportunity to spend time with Haydn… even if only to convince himself that he needed to take the Master’s approach to music in a completely new and different direction.

  8. debitsandcredits says:

    I never really liked Hayden’s music. I think the sheer number of his symphonies dilute something.

    As far as Beethoven goes, the usual list of his famous works goes like this:

    Symphonies 5th, 6th, and 9th, and maybe the 3rd. Piano Concerto 5th (Emperor). Piano sonatas 8th and 14th (Pathetique and Moonlight), violin concerto, and violin sonata 9th (Kreutzer).

    Personally, the real hidden gems are:
    Symphony 7th (and the 3rd) and Piano Concerto No.4.

    Listen to Piano Concerto No. 4!!!!

    P.S. Speaking of a teacher-pupil relationship, Beethoven later taught Carl Czerny (best known for his piano exercise music loathed by 5 to 12 year olds), and Czerny later taught Liszt.

    1. Jeff says:

      “I never really liked Hayden’s music. I think the sheer number of his symphonies dilute something.” AGREED!

  9. jb says:

    roll over, beethoven, and tell tchaikovsky the news.

  10. Hester Sturrock says:

    Hester from Atlanta here – joining the coversation a bit late. I played the upright bass (Double Basso) in several community orchestras. Although I love the 9th Symphony in all its fabulous glory, it is very hard to play and sing. It is a real endurance contest for all involved. Personally, as a member of an orchestra, I liked playing the 8th Symphony the best. It rolls along, has a bright rhythm and is just fun. When I need a pick me and I don’t have the mental or emotional energy to listen to the 9th, I enjoy listening to the 8th!!

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