Haydn and folk music

From Academic Kids

This article discusses the influence of folk music on the work of the celebrated composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).



Haydn was of humble family, perhaps unusually so for a famous composer. His parents were working people (his mother a former cook, his father a master wheelwright) living in an obscure rural village, and they had no musical training. This is not to say they were unmusical, however. It seems likely that Haydn's father, at least, was a skilled folk musician. While a journeyman wheelwright, Mathias Haydn taught himself to play the harp, and according to the oldest biographies of Haydn (written with the help of interviews with the composer), the Haydn family frequently sang together as well as with their neighbors.

Before he reached the age of six, Haydn was sent away from his family to receive formal musical training. But since even at this tender age, the child was already showing obvious musical talent, it seems fair to say that Haydn began his musical career as a folk musician.

The connection remained with him for the rest of his life. Throughout his career, Haydn took advantage of folk tunes, deploying them in strategic locations in his music. It is also thought that many of the Haydn's original tunes were strongly influenced by the folk idiom.

In the adapted tunes, scholars have noted Haydn's ability to transcend his folk material. Sometimes, the tune is used unaltered, but subjected to a sophisticated musical development. Sometimes the tune is altered, becoming less symmetrical and musically more interesting and expressive. As William H. Hadow pointed out, Haydn typically keeps the beginning of a tune and modifies the end.

Haydn borrowed folk tunes from several ethnic groups, including Austrians, gypsies, and Croatians.

Austrian folk music

The "Capriccio in G major on the folksong 'Acht Sauschneider müssen sein'", Hob. XVII:1 (1765), is an example of an Austrian folk tune used by Haydn. This work is a theme and variations on a children's song; for lyrics and discussion see this link (http://www.guildmusic.com/catalog/gui7260z.htm).

In addition, much of Haydn's dance music is claimed to be based on Austrian folk models.

In general, however, since Haydn lived most of his life in Austria, it is somewhat surprising how little Austrian material has been found in his work.

Gypsy music

A more important influence on Haydn was the work of the gypsy musicians. These musicians were, in the strictest sense, not folk musicians, but professionals who had a strong folk background. They occasionally wrote down their compositions or had them written down for them.

The gypsy musicians were employed by Haydn's patrons, the wealthy Eszterházy family, for two purposes. They traveled from inn to inn with military recruiters, playing the verbunkos or recruitment dance. They also were retained to play light entertainment music in the palace courtyard. On such occasions, Haydn was virtually certain to have heard their music; and some scholars have suggested that Haydn may have occasionally incorporated Gypsy musicians into his ensemble.

Haydn paid tribute to the gypsy musicians in (at least) three of his compositions.

  • His most famous piano trio, Hob XV:25 in G major, concludes with a movement that Haydn called (in the published English version) "Rondo in the Gypsies' Stile".
  • The minuet of his string quartet Opus 20 no. 4 was marked by Haydn as "Alla zingarese", which is Italian for "in the gypsies' style". This minuet has the interesting property of being written in 3/4 time, but sounding to the ear like 2/4.
  • The finale of Keyboard Concerto in D is marked Rondo all'ungherese. These is generally taken to refer to gypsy music and not Hungarian folk music--in fact, authentic Hungarian folk music was not widely known until much later, when fieldwork was carried out by Béla Bartók and others.

Croatian folk music

The folk music that seems to loom largest in Haydn's work is that of the Croatians,in the language composer understood and spoke. This is not because Haydn ever went to Croatia to learn this music; rather, he heard it from people living in Croatian ethnic enclaves, found in the eastern part of Austria near the border with Hungary. (For more on Haydn's Croatian connection, see below.)

Quotations and adaptations from this music appear to be abundant in Haydn's works; the following examples are representative.

  • The opening theme of the finale of Haydn's Symphony No. 104 (the "London" Symphony) is based on the Croatian traditional song Oj, Jelena, Jelena, jabuka zelena ("Oh, Helen, Helen, green apple of mine"). The Words and music (http://members.chello.at/lagraf1/Amerikalied/Kroatische-Lieder/Oj-Jelena.htm) of this song are available on-line (source: Burgenland-Bunch Songbook (http://members.chello.at/lagraf1/Amerikalied/Burgenland-Bunch-Songbook.htm)).
  • The finale of the "Drumroll" Symphony no. 103 begins with a theme based on the Croatian folk song Divojčica potok gazi ("A little girl treads on a brook").
  • The tune of what is now the German national anthem was written by Haydn--paradoxically, to serve as a patriotic song for Austria. The tune has its roots in an old folk song known in Medjimurje and northern regions of Croatia under the name "Stal se jesem". For details, see "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser."
  • A song widely known in Croatia, Nikaj na svetu lepšega ni, nego gorica kad nam rodi...(Nothing more beautiful in the world than a fruitful hill), was used by Haydn in an early work, the Cassation in G major (1765).

The reverse-transmission theory

Whenever it is claimed that Haydn employed a folk tune in his works, caution must be exercised, because we cannot be guaranteed that the direction of transmission was necessarily to, rather than from, Haydn. In the case of "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser", noted above, the hypothesis has been offered that the Croatian versions collected by fieldworkers represent folklorically altered versions of a tune entirely by Haydn, imperfectly transmitted (as the national anthem) through the Austrian Empire.

In this connection, it is conceivable that we have some testimony from Haydn himself. In his oratorio The Seasons, the composer depicted a rural plowman whistling a tune from his own "Surprise" Symphony. We cannot know at this stage whether this was meant as a little joke, or whether Haydn had actually noticed that his catchiest tunes were somehow percolating from the concert hall to the countryside.

Haydn and Croatian ethnicity

Assuming for the moment that the reverse-transmission theory is wrong, we must ponder why so many specifically Croatian songs crop up in Haydn's music. One possibility is simply that subsequent scholarship has pursued the Croatian connection more assiduously than that to other ethnicities--in fact the very Croatian songs have also been detected in Beethoven's music, specifically the Sixth Symphony. Another possibility is that Haydn simply liked the Croatian songs the best. A third possibility is that Haydn felt the Croatian songs would be most likely to be novel to his listeners, who were mostly of German or Hungarian ethnicity.

Finally, and most controversially, it has been conjectured that Joseph Haydn was himself Croatian; that is to say, he was a member of the Croatian ethnic minority residing in eastern Austria. In this view, it was in fact Croatian folk songs that Haydn heard in his childhood home, and during this time he imprinted them forever in his memory. The "Haydn as Croatian" theory was originated by a Croatian ethnologist named Franjo Kuhač, and was propagated (for instance, in various editions of the prestigious Grove Dictionary) by the musicologist Henry Hadow. Here is some of the evidence that has been adduced.

  • There are also many Croatians named Hajdin (phonetically very similar to German Haydn), or Hajdinjak. Assiduous Wikipedia editors, consulting the online Croatian telephone book, have found 124 entries for Hajdin and 218 entries for Hajdinjak, mostly in the Medjimurje region (Cakovec, Prelog, and many smaller municipalities) but also around Varazdin, Zagreb, Zadar and other locations.

Weighing in on the opposite side of the "Haydn as Croatian" issue is one of Haydn's principal biographers, the musicologist Karl Geiringer. Geiringer cites with approval research by Ernst Fritz Schmid, tracing back the name Haydn as well as the surname of Haydn's mother, Maria Koller, through German-speaking regions through the centuries. Geiringer comes down firmly on the side of the "Haydn as Austrian" theory, and cites the agreement of a French scholar, Michel Brenet. Geiringer's position in turn is endorsed by Mary Hughes in her own Haydn biography.

The novice investigating this issue finds it difficult to come to any firm conclusions. It is evident from his book that Karl Geiringer ultimately experienced feelings of vexation, arising from what he perceived as strong nationalist (as opposed to purely scholarly) motivations of the Croatian advocates. Perhaps this sense of vexation led Geiringer to express greater skepticism about the Croatian theory than the facts would justify. The most cautious verdict on this subject, then, would be that the ethnic background of Joseph Haydn is simply not known what in terms of common sense is very odd if not unique case.

Many music lovers feel that Haydn's ethnicity is not only unknown, but irrelevant: his music would be equally significant and beautiful no matter who his ancestors were.

External links



  • Hadow, Henry, Haydn: A Croatian Composer, London, 1897. (Excerpted in link above.)


  • Brenet, Michel, Haydn, Paris 1909.
  • Geiringer, Karl, Haydn: A Creative Life in Music, New York, Norton, 1946.
  • Hughes, Rosemary, Haydn, New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1950.
  • Schmid, Ernst Fritz, Joseph Haydn: ein Buch von Vorfahren und Heimat des Meisters. Kassel: Bärenreiter-Verlag, 1934


  • The "reverse-transmission" theory noted above is mentioned, perhaps facetiously, by Charles Rosen in his book The Classical Style (2nd ed., New York: Norton, 1997).

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