His times: The central change in Joseph Haydn’s career prophesised the big transformation in store for composers in the 19th century. He spent nearly three decades in the service of one aristocratic Austro-Hungarian family, while building a reputation abroad via the distribution of published works. When his services at court were suddenly dispensed with, Haydn found himself working freelance – and it turned out rather well. If that was more-or-less overnight, culturally the process was rather more gradual: as the new century dawned, composers would free themselves from aristocratic control, and it would show in their music.
His music: While his pupil Mozart came along and perfected the nascent string quartet and symphony, Haydn effectively set those forms up in the first place. His work on the symphony (creating cumulative, cohesive journeys across multiple movements and pioneering small motif construction) and the string quartet (which he pretty much invented) were of huge significance. But Haydn was prolific in all other forms, too. His relative isolation incubated an experimentalist and mischievous streak in his music. He often sounds less divine than Mozart, but in some senses attractively more human. Haydn was also one of music’s first great dramatists, adept at conjuring pictures in sound from a spectacular sunrise or expansive solar system to a clucking hen or ticking timepiece.
Himself: Evidence suggests Haydn was pretty likeable; a modest but patriarchal man who was fiercely individual to the point of occasional loneliness. His practical joking has been overplayed, but Haydn clearly liked a laugh – after all, he got on famously with that childish prankster Mozart.