By Rex Burgess

It has not been uncommon for posterity to treat offspring and siblings of famous composers rather shabbily. Carl Philipp Emanuel, for example, is the only one of Bach’s children to have escaped this fate, while Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael is prominent among those who have experienced it, with his works frequently being misattributed to his brother, or dismantled and their parts, metaphorically, thrown to the winds.

Five years the younger, Johann Michael – or Michael, as he preferred to be called – was born at Rohau, in Southern Austria, in 1737 and died at Salzburg in August 1806, three years before his brother and shortly before his 70th birthday. The brothers’ early years were quite similar, with both becoming choristers at Vienna’s St Stephen’s Cathedral around the age of eight, although neither received much in the way of musical education from the incumbent Kapellmeister, Georg Reuter. It seems Michael had the better voice, and when Joseph’s began to break, he was soon taking most of the principal soprano parts and in time was also serving as deputy organist.

Dismissed from the cathedral when his own voice broke, and again as with Joseph, Michael spent the next few years making a precarious living, till in 1757 he received his first appointment, as Kapellmeister to Count Firmian, Bishop of the Hapsburg-controlled city of Grosswardein, or Oradea, in what is now north-western Romania. An early maturer and already an accomplished composer at the age of 20, Michael stayed at Grosswardein for five years, during which he wrote a great deal of music, both sacred and secular. It’s not clear why he left, although Grosswardein was a smallish city which he may have felt he’d outgrown. He must have left on good terms, though, for it was on the recommendation of Count Firmian to his uncle that he obtained the important post of Konzertmeister to Sigismund von Schrattenbrach, the powerful Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg.

It transpired that Michael would spend the rest of his life at Salzburg. For although he received a tempting offer in the early 1800s to join his brother at the Esterházy court in Vienna, and despite the French occupation of Salzburg at that time, being then over 60 it seems he preferred not to uproot himself from his familiar surroundings. An even more attractive offer to go to Florence and manage the music for the Grand Duke of Tuscany, also was declined.

A graceful, versatile, and prolific composer who placed considerable emphasis on originality in composition, Michael was highly thought of in his time. Schubert, for instance, on visiting his grave, said: “The good Haydn! It almost seemed as if his clear, calm spirit was hovering over me. I may be neither clear nor calm, but no man living reveres him more than I. My eyes filled with tears as we came away”. It’s known also that Mozart, his young friend at Salzburg, greatly admired his works, as did Joseph, with the two brothers maintaining a friendly contact right throughout their lives. Comparisons between composers generally are rather pointless, for they all have their individual strengths and weaknesses. It’s interesting, though, to quote from a 1966 BBC lecture on Michael by the American critic H. Robbins Landon, which speaks to the inherent quality of his works: “The difference between a typical Joseph Haydn concerto and one of his brother’s is extraordinary. Joseph’s music is shorter and altogether far more pithy, but also far more primitive. In Michael’s works we can sense the intellectual, whereas in Joseph’s we have far more the easy, natural musician. Formally, too, Joseph’s typically three-part form is a far cry from the complex ritornello structure preferred by Michael.”

Being regularly called upon to provide works for use at the archbishop’s court, Michael’s secular compositions embrace a wide range of forms: symphonies, divertimenti, serenades, miscellaneous chamber and vocal, with the overall number running into many hundreds. However, it’s in the area of sacred music that he rose to his greatest heights, with several dozen masses, over 100 graduals, 67 offertories and numerous other works to his name.

Included are two quite outstanding requiems, the first of which clearly served as a model for Mozart’s own requiem, written twenty years later. The second – like Mozart’s, also remaining unfinished – inspired E.T.A Hoffmann a few years later to write in the following glowing terms: “All connoisseurs of music know, and have known for some time, that as a composer of sacred music, Michael Haydn ranks among the finest artists of any age or nation…”.

A selection of Michael Haydn’s works can be heard live on Sunday Special at 2pm on Sunday, June 9 and later on-demand.