• Nathan

Creativity, As Taught by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

F. Joseph Haydn was out of ideas.

In 1761 Haydn was hired by Hungarian Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy (ester-hah-zee) to become vice-musical conductor for his lavish estate. Prime job that it was, in some ways it was a servant's role.

Haydn was expected to appear in a uniform of "white stockings and linen, powdered, with either a pigtail or tie-wig" twice a day to receive his orders.

His workload was immense. When he became head conductor under Paul Anton's son Nicolaus in 1766,

"He was in charge of all musical activities, musicians, and instruments at the palace. [known as 'The Hungarian Versailles'] The palace of Esterhazy had an opera theater, marionette theater, two concert halls, an orchestra of about twenty-five, and an opera company of about twelve. Haydn had to prepare and conduct two instrumental concerts and two opera evenings per week. A great deal of the music for all this performance was expected to be new work."

(Esterhazy Palace)

Haydn lived in three rooms of the servants' quarters at Esterhazy, keeping a tight schedule that included up to eight hours of composing.

Not surprisingly, he would occasionally hit a creative wall.

When he did, Joseph Haydn would pause and pray. Here is Haydn in his own words, recounting one of his grandest works, "The Creation":

"Never was I so devout as when I composed The Creation. I knelt down each day to pray to God to give me strength for my work....When I was working on The Creation I felt so impregnated with Divine certainty, that before sitting down to the piano, I would quietly and confidently pray to God to grant me the talent that was needed to praise Him worthily."

And then he set to work.

Often Haydn would assemble his musicians as soon as he had completed an idea, listen to the result, and retreat to his study to continue composing. Here again is Haydn on the process:

"My Prince was always satisfied with my works. I not only had the encouragement of constant approval, but as conductor of an orchestra I could make experiments, observe what produced an effect and what weakened it, and thus was in a position to improve, alter, make additions, or omissions, and be as bold as I pleased."

Here's the kicker.

"I was cut off from the world, there was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original."

And so he did. Having begun in obscurity, Haydn went on to enjoy notoriety in his own time. He was celebrated as the pride of his native Austria. And although he did not invent the symphony or the string quartet, his work is so influential that he is lovingly referred to as the father of both.


Today we live in a wide culture but not a deep one. Watching pop icons these past years has been like experiencing feedback on a concert stage. The low rumble of influencers, aggregators, and regurgitators has risen to an ear-piercing squeal. Before March 2020, not many people would have chosen isolation. Now some are realizing how useful the mute button is.

For my own part, I am giving up on trends. I do not want to know where the industry is heading. I don't care to be relevant. But to be original? Now that is compelling.

Note: Biographical references taken from "The Vintage Guide to Classical Music" by Jan Swafford.

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