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On the composer.


Joseph Haydn spent much of his career as an opera composer. As music director for the aristocratic Esterházy family he managed an opera house that performed Italian operas twice a week for nine months out of the year, in addition to a smaller theatre that performed German “marionette operas.” Haydn devoted enormous amounts of work to maintaining the repertory of these two theatres, both in his painstaking adaptation of operas by other composers (touching up the orchestration, making judicious cuts, adding substitute arias to suit the voices of his singers) and in the two dozen operas he wrote himself over the course of his career. Much of this music has been permanently lost and none is known to a wide public, despite the best efforts of Haydn enthusiasts. Stage revivals of the surviving Haydn operas have received mixed reviews, not so much because of their musical quality as because of the dramatic ineffectiveness of their libretti. The plots are often bizarre, even by operatic standards, with highlights including Il mondo della luna (a fraudulent astronomer tricks an old man out of his two daughters by pretending to transport him to the moon), La fedeltà premiata (an evil priest tries to trick young lovers into being eaten by a sea monster), and L’anima del filosofo (based on the Orpheus myth but ending, unlike other Orpheus operas, with the disillusioned hero’s murder by a group of furious Bacchantes).

The three great Viennese classical composers exist in the popular imagination largely through misleading stereotypes. Mozart is imagined as the idiot-savant depicted in Shaffer’s Amadeus, a preternaturally gifted adolescent penning music of unearthly beauty as he drifts heedlessly toward his tragic demise. Beethoven is a Byronic hero with unkempt hair, unleashing his existential rage in stormy C minor in the face of an uncaring world. Haydn, by contrast, is an avuncular and unthreatening figure, an immaculately dressed factotum in livery and powdered wig who sits at his desk thinking of clever jokes and sight gags to enliven his innumerable symphonies and string quartets. One imagines this version of Haydn as a pleasant dinner companion, polite and self-effacing; if you sat next to him at a concert he would probably nudge you in the ribs and grin to make sure you didn’t miss the punchline in the “Surprise” Symphony.

In general, Haydn’s most frequently performed works are the ones that have memorable nicknames: the “Military” Symphony, the “Emperor” Quartet. These nicknamed pieces are useful landmarks in an intimidatingly large catalogue of works (fourteen Masses, forty-five piano trios, fifty-two keyboard sonatas, sixty-eight string quartets, one hundred and four symphonies), but the names tell the listener next to nothing about what the music is actually like. The titles of nineteenth-century orchestral works such as Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony or Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony convey some sense of the character or narrative significance of the piece as a whole, but the nicknames of Haydn’s symphonies usually refer to some superficial effect in one movement: the clucking hen in the first movement of Symphony No. 83, the ticking clock in the second movement of No. 101, or the drumroll that opens No. 103. The abundance of nicknames, catalogues, and numbering systems that have sprung up around Haydn’s music might lead us to suspect that something about this composer’s style is elusive to modern musicians, that even after long acquaintance we are not always sure whether we can tell one piece from another.

Our difficulty with Haydn is a function of the remoteness of the late eighteenth-century aesthetic sensibility; we cannot imagine how a musician could have been satisfied to work within a set of conventions as formally predetermined as those of the classical symphony, with its courtly minuets and balanced eight-measure phrases. No self-respecting composer after Beethoven could have written, as Haydn did, a series of one-hundred twenty-four trios featuring the baryton (an obscure and now-obsolete string instrument favored by his employer). Yet for a late eighteenth-century audience, the standardized form of a trio, symphony, or string quartet was not an obstacle to be overcome but a convention that gave satisfaction by its very familiarity. A musician who had heard thousands of minuets over the course of his life could happily listen to another one, taking pleasure in the composer’s skillful reworking of a familiar formula without expecting any new ground to be broken. Such listeners became highly attuned to subtle allusions, passing musical references, and minor deviations from established musical norms. Concertgoers of Haydn’s time were much more alive than we are to the primeval, archetypal associations of musical idioms; a horn call brought to mind the baying of hounds, a lord on horseback hunting with his retinue, while a trumpet fanfare evoked cannon fire and the smoke of battle. An artfully constructed piece rewarded careful listeners with hints of many different styles, each with their own connotations: learned polyphony from the Church’s liturgy, stately dances from the courts of the aristocracy, earthier dances from the countryside, lyrical melodies from the opera house, and melodramatic shifts to a minor key evoking the angst of the fashionable Sturm und Drang movement. Here we see Haydn the opera composer at work, assembling his cast of characters and writing distinctive music for each figure in the drama.

One way of summarizing the aesthetic gulf that separates us from Haydn is this: in a Romantic symphony you are inside the music, participating in an unfolding conflict, identifying with the musical narrative as though with the protagonist of a novel. In a Haydn symphony you are outside the music, observing the progress of a structure similar to many others you have heard before, watching the various characters as they pass by. There is never any doubt, real or entertained, about what is going to happen; the minuet will be followed by a contrasting trio, and then the orchestra will play the minuet again. The music delights precisely because the standardization and familiarity of its forms, predictable in their general outline but allowing for any number of different permutations. We smile because we knew from the beginning where Haydn was going to go, but we didn’t know how he was going to get there.

It’s this quality of detached pleasure that makes possible Haydn’s famous penchant for musical jokes. Most attempts at musical humor amount to a form of slapstick: the joke is on the musicians, and you are supposed to laugh at the flatulent noises coming from the trombone section, or at the outrageous wrong notes that the orchestra is playing deliberately (as in the ending of Mozart’s Musical Joke). Haydn was not immune to this sort of broad humour, as in the jumpscare of the “Surprise” Symphony or the gag at the end of the “Farewell” Symphony where the musicians pack up their instruments and leave the stage one by one. Sometimes Haydn’s tunes themselves seem to personify a kind of amiable goofiness; a fun party game is to take turns singing your favorite limericks to the tune of the finale from Symphony No. 98. But for the most part Haydn’s jokes are about the experience of hearing him. The joke is on the listener, whose attempts to follow the structure of the piece are confounded by the constant entanglement of musical beginnings and endings. Moments that sound to the listener like points of closure turn out to be an entry into new and unexpected territory, so that one’s sense of time is constantly disrupted. It is as though Haydn is poking fun precisely at the connoisseurship of his most experienced and knowledgeable listeners, and at the overearnest seriousness of eighteenth-century aesthetics: how do you expect to follow the philosophical meaning of my new symphony if you can’t even tell where it starts and stops?

This play of beginnings and endings is the basis of the famous finale of the “Joke” Quartet (op. 33, no. 2, in E flat). The basis of the joke is that the ending gesture of the piece is the same as its beginning gesture, so that the listener is left hanging, expecting a continuation that never arrives: Haydn has disappeared out the side entrance and you are left holding the bag. A more rarefied, intellectual version of the same joke appears in Symphony No. 47, where the second half of the minuet is just its first half played again, backwards. Again the end of the piece turns out to be the same as its beginning, but this time Haydn indulges in a more overt display of compositional skill (it’s not easy to write a tune that can be played backwards without turning into musical nonsense). One might even imagine that part of Haydn’s delight in these sorts of jokes was his experience of writing for the baryton, that obscure instrument favored by Prince Esterházy. The baryton is equipped with an extra set of strings that vibrate sympathetically for extra resonance; there is no way to stop these strings from sounding after the player stops bowing, so in performance every piece of baryton music ends with a quiet halo-like chord that eventually dies away long after the other musicians have stopped playing. The piece has ended; the music continues.

Where does one begin in listening to a composer as long-lived and prolific as Haydn? Few musicians can have come to grips with such an enormous output, comprising thousands of works written over a career lasting a half-century (from the 1750s to the 1800s). The contrast with his contemporaries is instructive: Beethoven, with his more laborious working process, left a much smaller catalogue of music, and the prolific Mozart composed his most valuable music only in the last fifteen years of his life. (Despite the composer’s reputation as a child prodigy, none of the music written by the prepubescent Mozart has lasted in the repertoire; listening to his complete symphonies is a disillusioning experience.) With Haydn, though, even the early works have real musical value; one can start almost anywhere and find signs of a first-rate musical intelligence at work. Even the little Missa brevis in F that Haydn wrote as a teenaged chorister in Vienna is a charming work, still performed today. In the last years of his life, the ailing Haydn rediscovered the piece; finding that he was still pleased with it, he decided to touch up the orchestration with some added wind parts, one of his final projects as a composer. Perhaps unintentionally, Haydn ended his career with a joke: his earliest surviving composition is also his last composition.

The F-major Missa brevis is a cheerful and wholly unpretentious piece of sacred music, and Haydn’s affection for the work in his old age seems somehow disappointing; everybody knows that great composers are supposed to descend into the gnomic abstractions of “late style” in the final years of their lives. Haydn’s career trajectory was, if anything, the opposite of this: his music was at its most complex and eccentric when Haydn was in his thirties and forties. Listeners attuned to gnomic abstraction and who find the later Haydn too cheerful may wish to immerse themselves in the fascinating eccentricities of works like the “Farewell” Symphony, which begins with a furious outburst of jagged string syncopations and ends with two forlorn solo violinists left on stage alone. Oddest of all is Symphony No. 64, subtitled Tempora mutantur (“The times are changed”; the Latin adage normally continues et nos mutamur in illis, “and we change with them”). Here Haydn’s obsession with manipulating musical time reaches its fullest expression, but the effect is intended to unsettle rather than to amuse. In the surreal second movement, an initially normal-sounding melody is interspersed with unexpected, ominous silences; in the first few measures it’s possible to fill in the blanks without much difficulty, but as the movement progresses the dissonant harmonies and increasingly fragmented musical discourse challenge the listener’s grip on reality. The eeriness of the effect may be intended to evoke the supernatural: the Tempora mutantur subtitle bears more than a passing resemblance to Hamlet’s “The times are out of joint.”

If we knew nothing about Haydn’s biography, we might imagine that Tempora mutantur was a late work, written by an aged composer gazing in the direction of the unknown country, but in fact Haydn was in his early forties, an ambitious musician ensconced in a secure position that gave him the space for experimentation. What followed this was a career transformation unique in music history: the growing sophistication of his music was matched by his burgeoning international fame, so that the elderly Haydn found himself for the first time able to address large audiences of enthusiastic concertgoers. This period produced the works for which Haydn is best known: the “Paris” and “London” symphonies, The Creation, The Seasons, the trumpet concerto, the final books of string quartets. Having begun his career in the comparative obscurity of the Esterházy court, in his last decades Haydn found himself the most famous composer in Europe, eagerly courted by foreign concert organizers and music publishers. He remained loyal to the Esterházy family, returning to the estate each year to direct a new orchestral Mass setting for the princess’s name day. The final three Masses are probably the most neglected of his late masterpieces, all in B flat major and each one more glorious than the last: the Theresienmesse, the Schöpfungsmesse, and the Harmoniemesse, his last major work.

Most North American Catholics would be surprised to learn that sacred music held such a pre-eminent place in Haydn’s output, and one can hardly blame them. Conventional wisdom among church musicians holds that Viennese orchestral masses are inappropriate for the liturgy, too long and too extroverted, and so even those churches with the resources to perform elaborate choral music generally stick to the shorter and more manageable Masses of Palestrina and Victoria. And of course it is hard to imagine any parish where Haydn’s forty-minute-long late Masses could be sung regularly; even in their own time these great liturgical works were reserved for special occasions. Much is lost, however, when Haydn’s music is consigned to the concert hall. Mass settings are notoriously ineffective in concert, since outside their liturgical context they are just a series of loud, celebratory choral movements in the same key (the triumphant Gloria immediately succeeded by a triumphant Credo). Haydn’s Masses belong in church because what is captured in them, with their trumpets and drums and infectious dance rhythms, is the cosmic dimension of the liturgy: the expressive resources of the classical orchestra bring before us the weight of the world’s sins, the pathos of human suffering, and the glories of creation, placing them all within the frame of the Mass itself. All of this may still seem a bit much for purists, but first we should examine our consciences for signs of latent Stoicism. If we prefer Gregorian chant or Renaissance polyphony primarily for its comparative restraint and sobriety, we should consider the possibility that our perceptions are inspired less by any inherent qualities of the music than by its greater chronological distance from us.

When the theologians of the mid-twentieth century wrote about eighteenth-century music, the composer they praised most highly was not Haydn but his friend Mozart. For Barth and Balthasar, for Küng and Ratzinger, writing about music invariably meant writing about Mozart, and the qualities that they praised in him were the same: his grace, his lightness of touch, the way in which he deftly reconciles the opposing poles of time and eternity, heaven and earth, laughter and tears. “A sphere lies open, invisibly, beyond this one, to receive the earthly play,” wrote Balthasar, in a long essay on the “farewell trio” of The Magic Flute:

This earthly drama is not justified or reevaluated in that other sphere only at a subsequent stage, nor is it broken down into a transitory chaff and an eternal kernel, which alone would be gathered into the heavenly barns: rather, what is earthly always takes place from the very outset, without any abbreviation, in the medium of what lies beyond the earthly and makes a space for it. There is no transposition: the world is in the sphere of redemption, and earth is in heaven in its true and authentic position.”

This description embodies a certain aesthetic ideal in creating sacred art, the perfect interlocking of the immanent and the transcendent, and it would be tempting to say that Balthasar’s words apply equally well to Haydn’s music. But there are some significant differences between the two composers. Haydn’s works are equally accomplished, but they tend to be messier, untidier; even when he has no special intention of unsettling or joking with his listeners, Haydn’s contrasts tend to be sharper, his transitions more sudden and unexpected. It is instructive to compare his final Masses to The Magic Flute because it reveals how different the two composers were from each other, despite their deep mutual respect. Mozart’s opera is, in the end, a serene work: the characters are archetypes, and so despite the vocal pyrotechnics of the Queen of the Night one never really fears for the lives of the heroes. A work like Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, on the other hand, is full of apparently unresolved tensions. The territory is seemingly familiar, taking the listener from the ominous opening Kyrie eleison to a triumphant Dona nobis pacem, but there are many oddities along the way: a terrifying minor-key Qui tollis in the Gloria, sinister trills in the strings that haunt the second half of the Credo, and vertiginous leaps in the vocal parts for the Hosannas. The Benedictus, often set by eighteenth-century composers as a lyrical soprano solo, is taken here as a breathless dance marked Allegro molto. One can almost imagine Haydn playing the opera impresario one last time, expertly managing an unruly cast of characters and allowing each one to take part in the Mass in his own idiom.

Ironically, the qualities that made Haydn so extraordinarily popular in his own day have left him perpetually underrated in ours. Haydn’s audiences loved him for the variety of styles in his music, his breadth of musical reference, his light touch, his unpredictability; later generations of composers preferred to emulate Beethovenian moral seriousness, stylistic consistency, unity, and concision. Haydn is thus perpetually relegated to the role of a mere precursor to Mozart and Beethoven, someone who comes out to tell a few jokes before the arrival of the headline performer. The danger of hiring someone like Haydn as your warm-up act, though, is that he may steal the show. Often a Haydn symphony programmed as a concert opener turns out to be more interesting and memorable than anything else the orchestra plays that evening; you try your best to concentrate on the earnest Romantic cello concerto, but one of Haydn’s earworms is still playing in your head. Haydn could not have anticipated the strange posthumous revenge he would have on his successors, but one imagines he would have enjoyed the joke.

Aaron James is director of music at the Toronto Oratory and a contributing editor of The Lamp.

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