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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?