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Issue 07 – Saint Rose 2021



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.

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About the author

Aaron James

Aaron James is the Director of Music for the Toronto Oratory of Saint Philip Neri and a contributing editor at The Lamp.