The famous Austrian composers included a variety of musical traditions, such as the classical compositions of Haydn and Mozart, the light dance and operas of Strauss, and the transitional modernism of Mahler. The duties of their career choices that took them away from creating music provide a different perspective on their lives. The best part of the stories of these composers is the library of music that they left us.
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Franz Joseph Haydn helped develop chamber music. He earned the titles Father of the Symphony and Father of the String Quartet. As a court musician of the Esterházy family, he claimed the isolation from other musicians and music trends forced him to be original. However, his isolation didn’t stop his music from spreading and making him a celebrated European composer. His contact with a few other composers included his brother, Michael Haydn, his friend and mentor, Wolfgang Mozart, and his student, Ludwig von Beethoven.
Born in Rohrau, Austria, his father, Mathias Haydn, was a wheelwright, and his mother, Maria Kollar, was a cook in Count Harrach’s household. Matthias played the harp and was a folk musician. Neither of his parents could read music, but the family enjoyed singing together. At six, his parents recognized their son’s musical abilities and placed him with Johann Matthias Frankh, a relative and choirmaster in Hainburg. Haydn never returned to his parent’s home.
He sang with the treble choir section and played harpsichord and violin. Haydn’s singing caught the attention of Georg von Reutter, the music director at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. In 1739, Reuter brought him to Vienna to join the choir, where he remained for nine years. He was terminated as a member in 1749 because his voice changed, and he pulled a prank on another choir member.
He worked as a music teacher, street performer, and in 1752, he became a valet and accompanist to Nicola Porporz, an Italian composer. That is when he learned music composition. Along with the formal training, he studied on his own. He composed the opera Der Krumme Teufel or The Limping Devil, which closed because of offensive remarks.
Haydn became a music teacher and composer for several aristocrats, including Baron Carl Josef Fürnberg, for whom he wrote his first string quartets in 1756. In 1757, he started working for Count Morzin as a Kapellmeister or music director. That is when Haydn wrote his first symphonies. In 1760, he married Maria Anna Theresia Keller.
When Count Morzin suffered financial setbacks in 1761, Haydn started working for the Esterházy family as Vice-Kapellmeister. In 1766, he became Kapellmeister. After Prince Nikolaus took over as head of the Esterházy family, he requested that Haydn write music for the baryton that Nikolaus could play. Many of these works were baryton trios. After about ten years, Prince Nikolaus made Haydn director of his opera company. As the producer, Haydn wrote some operas and wrote arias to add to operas of other composers.
In 1779, Haydn renegotiated his contract. He was allowed to compose and sell works to other people and publishers. He started writing fewer operas and more quartets and symphonies. When Prince Anton succeeded his father in 1790, Prince Anton reduced expenses and allowed Haydn to travel. Haydn went to England and conducted symphonies. That created financial security for him. He wrote some of his best-known works during that time.
In 1795, when Prince Anton died, Prince Nikolaus II hired Haydn as part-time Kapellmeister. Haydn wrote six masses for Prince Nikolaus II along with other independent works. His health declined, and he was unable to work after 1803.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg and proved to be a child musical prodigy at five years old. At that time, he was playing the keyboard and violin and was composing. Mozart wrote his first symphony at eight years old and performed on a grand tour for European royalty. He was performing at the Salzburg court by the age of 17. In 1781, at 25, he was removed from that position. For the last ten years of his life, he wrote symphonies, operas, concertos, and the Requiem. The 600 works brought him fame, but not financial security. Between 1782 and 1785, he started renting large rooms and giving concerts that delighted him and the audience. The performances also improved his financial situation. He wrote his two well-known operas, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, between 1785 and 1787. The Austro-Turkish War caused an economic decline that also impacted Mozart. His financial situation improved, and he had one more public success with The Magic Flute before his death at 35 in 1791
Johann Strauss II (1827–1870)
Johann Strauss II was born in Ulrich near Vienna. As the oldest son of composer Johann Strauss I and Maria Anna Stream, his father wanted him to pursue a more secure career than music, such as banking. However, young Strauss secretly took violin lessons from a member of his father’s orchestra. When his father caught him playing the violin, he beat Johann to discourage his interest in music. When Strauss’s father left the family for his mistress, young Strauss pursued music with his mother’s blessing. Two younger brothers of Johann, Josef, and Eduard, also pursued music careers, but his brothers didn’t achieve Johann’s success.
Johann studied composition and formed an orchestra. However, he had trouble getting venues to hire his orchestra because many establishments were concerned about angering his father. His early career was also challenging because he took the side of the revolutionaries in the Austrian Empire revolutions of 1848. When his father died in 1849, Johann merged his father’s orchestra with his. Then, he composed marches dedicated to Franz Josef I.
His popularity grew, but he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1853. His younger brother, Josef, quit his job as an engineer and managed Johann’s orchestra during that period. In 1863, he was named Hofballmusikdirektor (Music Director of the Royal Court Balls).
Johann Strauss II composed 500 polkas, waltzes, and quadrilles. He popularized the waltz in Vienna and became known as The Waltz King. He also wrote operettas and music for a ballet. His compositions include The Blue Danube, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Kaiser-Walzer (Emperor Waltz), and Die Fledermaus.
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911)
Austrian composer Gustav Mahler was renowned in his time but gained new popularity after WWII. He was one of the composers whose music created a transition from classical to modernism.
Gustav Mahler was born in Bohemia and showed his musical talents when he was young. As an 1878 graduate of the Vienna Conservatory, he conducted orchestras at opera houses across Europe. Austrian composer Mahler became director of the Vienna Court Opera in 1897. His reputation as a conductor grew, and his interpretations of Mozart, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky added to his acclaim. He left Europe to direct the New York Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic for a brief period.
Although considered an Austrian composer Gustav Mahler had to make his conducting career his priority. His early works include a piano quartet. However, his duties as an orchestra conductor gave him less time for composing. He did arrange His schedule so that he could write music in the summer. His work as a conductor influenced his later compositions. He created music for orchestras, symphonic choirs, and opera soloists. Many of the pieces of Austrian composer Mahler didn’t receive immediate acclaim but eventually gained recognition.
While they are known for their works, writing music wasn’t the financial mainstay of most of these Austrian composers, and that affected the genre and amount of music that many of them composed. Haydn had patrons and wrote much of his music to fulfill their requests. Mozart came the closest to earning a living with his compositions, but he didn’t have real financial success for most of his life. Strauss was able to write and perform the musical style of his choice. However, he had to spend time booking his orchestra in venues. As a conductor, Mahler’s employer approved the music the orchestra performed. He also had to spend his time rehearsing with the orchestra and choir. He finally set his summers aside for composing.