The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Mozart and Haydn’s Beautiful, Selfless Friendship

Mozart and Haydn’s Beautiful, Selfless Friendship

Few acts of creative courage are more vulnerable-making than sharing our labors of love with others, but especially with our heroes — those whom we admire as masters of our chosen craft and whose opinions we reverence as a supreme metric of merit. The terror at the prospect of disappointing those mentors and role models, of having them perceive mediocrity where we have aimed for greatness, is a singular terror familiar to all who have devoted their lives to bringing something new and beautiful and significant into the world, be they scientists or artists.

Two centuries before artist Ann Truitt’s beautiful reflection on the parallels between being an artist and being a parent, one of humanity’s greatest artists, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791), conjured the same metaphor as he confronted that peculiar terror in entrusting his labor of love in the hands of his dear friend and mentor Joseph Haydn.

The two composers, a generation apart, met in Vienna around Christmas of 1783. After sensing a great kinship of spirit, they moved quickly across the concentric circles of platonic relationships and arrived at the center of a deep friendship. Having already admired Haydn for years and even considered him his teacher, Mozart composed six string quartets dedicated to his friend and hero. In the late summer of 1785, he presented them to Haydn in a beautiful letter included in The Norton Book of Friendship (public library) — that forgotten 1991 treasure edited by Eudora Welty, which gave us Welty’s warm wisdom on friendship as an evolutionary mechanism for language and Albert Camus and Boris Pasternak’s beam of kinship and mutual appreciation across the Iron Curtain.


On September 1, 1785, 29-year-old Mozart writes to 53-year-old Haydn:

To my dear friend Haydn.

A father who had decided to send out his sons into the great world, thought it his duty to entrust them to the protection and guidance of a man who was very celebrated at the time and who, moreover, happened to be his best friend.

In like manner I send my six sons to you, most celebrated and very dear friend. They are, indeed, the fruit of a long and laborious study; but the hope which many friends have given me that this toil will be in some degree rewarded, encourages me and flatters me with the thought that these children may one day prove a source of consolation to me.

During your last stay in this capital you yourself, my very dear friend, expressed to me your approval of these compositions. Your good opinion encourages me to offer them to you and leads me to hope that you will not consider them wholly unworthy of your favour. Please then receive them kindly and be to them a father, guide and friend! From this moment I surrender to you all my rights over them. I entreat you, however, to be indulgent to these faults which may have escaped a father’s partial eye, and, in spite of them, to continue your generous friendship towards one who so highly appreciates it. Meanwhile, I remain with all my heart, dearest friend, your most sincere friend.

W.A. Mozart

That year, Haydn wrote in a letter to Mozart’s father:

I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.

But most heartening of all is the complete absence of professional jealousy between the two composers. To be this invested in the success of another, in their personal and professional actualization, in their creative blossoming, is a rare gift indeed — increasingly so in today’s heartbreakingly competitive culture. Haydn’s generosity of spirit toward his young friend shines most luminously in a letter from the end of 1787:

If I could only impress on the soul of every friend of music, and on high personages in particular, how inimitable are Mozart’s works, how profound, how musically intelligent, how extraordinarily sensitive! (for this is how I understand them, how I feel them) — why then the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel within their frontiers… but should reward him, too: for without this, the history of great geniuses is sad indeed, and gives but little encouragement to posterity to further exertions… It enrages me to think that this incomparable Mozart is not yet engaged in some imperial or royal court! Forgive me if I lose my head. But I love this man so dearly.

When Mozart died four years later at only thirty-five, Haydn eulogized him with the assertion that “posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years.” In history’s hindsight of a quarter millennium, Haydn’s praise appears to be an understatement.

Complement with Mozart on the creative process, his daily routine, and his magnificent love letter to his wife, then revisit the touching beams of appreciation and generosity between other pairs of genius: Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, James Joyce and Heinrich Ibsen, and Ursula Nordstrom and Maurice Sendak.

Published October 7, 2016




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