Beethoven on his deathbed was said to marvel that so humble a village as Rohrau should have produced so great a musician as Haydn. Neither Mathias Haydn, his father, nor Anna Maria Koller, his mother, had any formal training in music. Consequently, the young Joseph, or Sepperl as his parents called him, did not have quite the advantages of his much younger contemporary and friend Wolfgang Mozart, whose father Leopold was a gifted teacher.
How, then, did the young Joseph take the first step to Parnassus?
Fortunately for Haydn, an appreciation of music and music-making were as much a part of the Haydn family tradition as they were of Mozart’s. And as Haydn’s story illustrates such an early exposure to music, however slight or rudimentary, can have a profound impact on an individual’s later life.
Haydn’s father, Mathias, had in the course of his travels as a young journeyman wheelwright learned to play the harp. And as a master craftsman, he continued to play the instrument, accompanying himself and his wife on the harp. On these occasions, the young Sepperl, little more than a toddler, would sit nearby, pretending to accompany his parents on an imaginary violin.
This ability to hear the underlying beat and rhythm in a piece of music was the first indication of the young boy’s musical talent. This may not seem particularly impressive, but try it for yourself, and you’ll see that keeping time is no mean feat. Listen to a piece of music—any piece of music. Can you identify the beat? Is it in duple time, triple, or quadruple? What about the rhythm? Do you hear eighth notes, triplets, sixteenth notes?
Unless one has spent time training the ear, this can be a difficult task even for those who’ve had some form of musical instruction. Some people, of course, seem to naturally have a refined sense of rhythm. And the young Joseph appears to have been one of them.
He managed to keep time so well with his little wooden stick, that Johann Mathias Franck, a visiting cousin from the neighboring town of Hainburg, suggested that the Haydns send their young boy to his school. His training there in music, reading, writing, and the catechism could, he promised, open up a career in the church.
Up until the 1780s when Emperor Joseph II began closing down monasteries and cloisters and making churches account for their every expense, music was such a significant aspect of worship that the church was likely the largest employer of musicians. In Vienna alone, according to David Wyn Jones, there may have been as many as 2000 musicians employed by the church. Encouraged by the Habsburgs, music flourished in church, monastery, and cloister, and the nuns and monks of the capital excelled at the art.
For Haydn’s parents, eager to see their little Sepperl established as a clergyman, the school at Hainburg was to be the first step in this direction. For Haydn, of course, this was to be his first step to Parnassus.