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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How to get a handle on Haydn

By Norman Lebrecht / February 18, 2009

The problem with Haydn is … where do I begin? Composers come in two categories, frugal and prolific. Arnold Schoenberg never wrote more than one opus a year. Haydn could write three in a week.

However, unlike other flood-writers, unlike Mozart with a little night music and Mendelssohn with the ubiquitous wedding march, Franz-Josef Haydn never wrote anything so attention-seeking as a signature tune. He just kept on writing one good piece after another, so unstoppably that publishers would issue six string quartets under the same opus number in order to mask his reckless productivity.

In the 1920s, a rich Dutchman called Antony van Hoboken, began collecting Haydn manuscripts and first editions in order to compile a definitive catalogue. He gave up at 5,000 items and, although all Haydn works now bear a Hob. number, new ones still keep turning up. There is just too much Haydn for anyone to get their head around and this year, the bicentenary of his death in 1809, is giving music festivals and concert planners a bit of a headache. How Do We Do Haydn? is the anguished cry.

The complete works have just appeared in a box of 150 CDs and, while amazingly cheap, tend to compound the problem rather than resolve it. For although designers at the Brilliant label helpfully colour-code all the works by genre, the sheer volume of output saps the will to listen. Haydn Year is not going to be an easy sell.

On paper, it ought to be. Haydn is one of the most important personalities in classical music, inventor of both the symphony and the string quartet. Mozart called him Papa Haydn, declaring ‘he is the father of us all.’ Haydn, though, was not content to create the moulds. He went on to fill them with 104 symphonies and 68 quartets, adroit and diverting but seldom edge-of-seat gripping. He also produced concertos for eight different instruments; a host of masses; two great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons; 13 Italian operas and six in German; any number of trios and piano pieces. Not to mention hundreds of Scottish, Welsh and English songs.

While living in London in the 1790s, Haydn was contacted separately by three Edinburgh publishers and asked to furnish instrumental accompaniments for the national folklore. The fee was one or two guineas a song, plus gifts of silk hankies and a snuffbox. Delighting in the lay of dialects, he knocked off enough to fill 20 CDs. Hearing that Anne Hunter, wife of his London surgeon, was a published poet, he set some of her verses as well.

The Brilliant coffer contains all the Haydn you could ever want for around £90, or 65 pence a disc. The symphonies, conducted by Adam Fischer, are beautifully done and the Buchbinder Quartet’s trawl is impressive. The rest are all sorts from odd sources, and the absence of star performers renders the set useless for the perplexed.

There are ways into Haydn, but they require thoughtful context. Great conductors down the ages understood that Haydn is not a stand-alone composer, but a warm-up act. Toscanini would perform the 92nd symphony ahead of Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, while Furtwängler played the 88th as an aperitif to the fourth symphonies of Schumann and Bruckner, expounding symphonic truths through a Haydn matrix. Thomas Beecham, less pedagogically, would lead off a concert with a late Haydn symphony as a means of blowing the cares and cobwebs off an after-work city audience.

Anyone who works his way through a batch of Haydn scores will soon recognise that he is not a composer who, like Mozart or Beethoven, shows consistent novelty and strength of will. For much of his life Haydn led the orchestra in a country house at Esterhazy, writing to amuse the idle gentry in long winter evenings. His requirement was to produce new works but not demonstrably to innovate. The Hungarian aristos who paid his keep did not want to have their conversations disturbed by anything out of the ordinary.

Haydn tried to make his symphonies more sellable by giving them names. The 92nd is titled Oxford because he conducted it there for his honorary doctorate. The Surprise (94) administers a polite little shock, and the Clock (101) goes tick-tock. Symphonies 82-87 written for Paris and 93-104 for London are his most vivacious, but, in his mid-60s, he was having far too good a time in London with high society and a mistress, Rebecca Schroeter, to attempt anything audacious. He was a conservative artist, charming and conventional. Recordings of the London symphonies by Antal Dorati, Neville Marriner and Nikolaus Harnoncourt are as lively as Haydn ever gets.

There is a delicious recording by Jacqueline du Pre of the C major cello concerto – you can hear a segment on YouTube - and another by Martha Argerich of the D-major piano concerto. The quartets have been recorded comprehensively by the Amadeus, the Lindsays and others, and the fine young Jerusalem Quartet is giving five recitals at the Wigmore Hall this season, juxtaposing works from each phase of Haydn’s life in an effort to deepen appreciation of a sedate personality, good humoured and demanding little beyond the right to compose. His sweet nature is at its most ingenious in the Lark Quartet of 1790, where a bird call becomes the subject of a civilised, four-way conversation, ending in something like a Scottish jig.

While at work on The Creation, arguably his masterpiece, he was interrupted one morning by a visiting diplomat. ‘See how the notes behave like waves?’ said Haydn, pointing to the rise and fall of cadences on the manuscript. ‘Look, you can also see mountains.’ He beamed a huge smile at his mystified visitor. ‘Sometimes,’ said Haydn, ‘you have to amuse yourself, while being serious.’

His love of England persisted after he returned to Vienna, where he wrote a Nelson Mass for the victory in the Battle of the Nile and performed Arianna a Naxos with the Admiral’s mistress, Emma Hamilton, singing the title role. As he lay dying, aged 77, Napoleon launched artillery attacks on Vienna. ‘Have no fear,’ said the composer, ‘where Haydn is, no harm can fall.’

When I said he left no signature tune, there was one but it got taken out of his hands. A theme from the Emperor Quartet became the Austrian national anthem in 1797 as Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, recast in Germany as Deutschland über alles. It is a measure of Haydn’s modesty that his name is untouched by that notoriety, something he may have feared. Having seen his best tune taken up by the nation, he sat down at the piano and turned out a set of variations on the theme, skimmed of pomp and fervour, slightly melancholic, the contemplative Haydn talking peaceably to himself. NL


How to survive Haydn Year

1 Take two symphonies a week on BBC Radio 3 and visit its Haydn site

2 See innocuous opera Armida (from Aug. 20) at Salzburg Festival

3 Go for different quartets at Wigmore Hall, almost any week.

4 Read David Wyn Jones’s Oxford Companion to Haydn, the ultimate bluffers guide

5 Download Austria Radio’s Haydn podcast

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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