After Count Morzin had run into financial trouble and was forced to dismiss his musicians, Joseph Haydn quickly found a new employer in the person of Prince Esterházy.
When Joseph Haydn began his service in 1761, the small baroque town of Eisenstadt on the west bank of Lake Neusiedl was the permanent residence of Prince Esterházy. Haydn moved into a rented flat before purchasing his own house near the Franziskanerkloster in 1766. In the middle of the 17th century Eisenstadt was elevated to the status of Royal Free City by Emperor Ferdinand III as King of Hungary in order to assert itself against the powerful Esterházy family.
In Eisenstadt Haydn`s new employer beginning in 1761 was Prince Paul Anton Esterházy I (1711-1762), who was a lover of music like his forbears. The Esterházy family was one of the richest and most powerful in the Habsburg monarchy. In addition to their palace in Vienna, they owned palaces throughout Hungary and in today`s Austrian province of Burgenland. The Esterházy princes led a regal life and governed as sovereigns over their principality. A significant period in Haydn`s life commenced as Prince Esterházy`s deputy kapellmeister´´ in Eisenstadt, ...where I wish to live and die,´´ Haydn wrote in a letter dated 6 July 1776. His first compositions were the symphonies Le Matin, Le Midi and Le Soir (Hob.I:6-8).
Haydn`s first contract with Prince Paul Anton Esterházy I stems from 1 May 1761. When Haydn commenced his activity in Eisenstadt he was initially hired as deputy kapellmeister´´ since the ageing and infirm Georg Joseph Werner (1693-1766) was still officially the director of the prince`s orchestra. Haydn`s contract obligated him to behave and dress in accordance with his status as well as to set an example for the musicians subordinate to him and to compose music at the behest of the prince. His duties ranged from the care of instruments and the archiving of musical scores to teaching, composing and performing. Prince Paul Anton Esterházy I, who converted a glasshouse into a theatre in the palace park, died on 18 March 1762.
Prince Nicholas Esterházy I (1714-1790) succeeded his brother Paul Anton on 17 May 1762. He was Haydn`s benefactor and employer for nearly 30 years. The epithet lover of splendour´´ refers to the fact that he enjoyed providing money for large festivals and special occasions. Poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe wrote about the Esterházy fairyland´´ in his autobiography. In many ways Nicholas I was an exemplary patron, and Haydn, who originated from simple circumstances, was Prince Esterházy`s third highest-paid officer of the household´´ after the regent of the estates and physician. This financial rank demonstrates the significant position Haydn occupied and the enormous esteem he enjoyed: My prince was satisfied with all my works, I received applause (...) I was isolated from the rest of the world (...) and thus I was forced to become original.´´ (Griesinger)
The favourite instrument of Prince Nicholas Esterházy I was the baryton, which he himself played, and thus he expected his kapellmeister to write new music for the instrument. The baryton is an instrument similar to the cello, which not only has strings to be played with a bow, but behind the neck of the instrument to pluck. Haydn composed 125 divertimenti for baryton, viola and cello, just as many solo pieces, duets and ensemble music with solos for one, sometimes two barytons. After the death of kapellmeister Georg Joseph Werner in 1766 Haydn assumed full musical responsibility.
After Joseph Haydn had become kapellmeister, he purchased a lovely little house in Eisenstadt near the Franziskanerkloster for 1000 gulden. Unfortunately the house brought him little happiness, as it burnt down twice. Prince Nicholas Esterházy I had it rebuilt again at his own expense – proof of how much he appreciated his kapellmeister. For his part Haydn swore to serve him until death would decide over his prince`s life or his own....´´ (Dies) Haydn sold the house in 1778. It has housed the Haydn Museum since 1935.
Near the southeast shore of Lake Neusiedl the Esterházy princes owned a small hunting lodge named after the nearby village of Süttör. Prince Nicholas I had a special affinity for the place and opted to transform the building into a splendid palace called Eszterháza´´ beginning in 1766. It was an extraordinary idea in the middle of marshy corner of the lake to build a Hungarian Versailles´´ whose premises would contain an opera house, puppet theatre and numerous adjacent buildings – and to make this place into a cultural centre on par with European standards. From approximately 1766/77 Eszterháza became a centre of activity for Haydn in the summer months.
Haydn`s first opera written for the Esterházy court, Acide, was performed on the occasion of the wedding of Prince Nicholas` first born son in 1763. After the transfer of the court to Eszterháza, Haydn returned to opera with La canterina (1766), Lo speziale (1768) and Le pescatrici (1769). From 1776 the daily agenda included opera and theatre performances: between 1780 and 1790 Haydn directed over 1000 opera performances. Out of a total of 78 operas performed by 1784, 15 of them originated from Joseph Haydn. This extensive operatic activity was an enormous strain on Haydn. Of historical importance was Empress Maria Theresa`s visit to Eszterháza in September of 1773 during the course of which she enjoyed Haydn`s puppet opera Philemon and Baucis. During this visit Haydn was formally introduced to the empress.