On the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s
death Damian Thompson discusses the elusive appeal of this delightful composer This year sees major anniversary celebrations of the work of Handel (d 1759), Haydn (d 1809) and Mendelssohn (b 1809). There was a time when I would have dreaded the thought of being swamped by the music of three of my least favourite great composers. Handel? Too many melodic flourishes. Too little counterpoint. Da capo markings that produce as many repeats as the CD player in a teenager’s bedroom. Plus – though this I admit is unfair – he isn’t Bach. Mendelssohn? It’s pretty unforgivable to produce your greatest work, the Octet, at the age of 16. Give me messy Schumann rather than tidy, decorous, politely glittering Mendelssohn any day.
And Joseph Haydn? It makes me shudder to think that, until 10 years ago, I blamed him for not being Mozart, for not writing delicious piano concertos and spinning melodies from every bar. I didn’t (and still don’t) feel the need to have all 104 symphonies on CD. In my limited experience, some were delightful, some a bit dreary, and in the concert hall you never knew which it was going to be. If the latter, you just waited to get it out of the way before the concerto soloist arrived and the real fun started.
Well, I apologise. Up to a point. No one, not even Haydn scholars, considers the earliest symphonies to be much more than gentle entertainment, while there’s a definite scattering of duds between the electrifying Sturm und Drang symphonies of 1766-73 and the masterworks of the 1790s. And Haydn’s operas are not, whatever anyone says, an undiscovered treasure trove. (A painful evening at Covent Garden demonstrated that to my satisfaction.) The truth is that Haydn filled drawer after drawer with pretty, clever but forgettable music during his 50-odd years as a working composer, much of it spent as a liveried servant for Prince Esterhazy.
But – and here’s the point at last – he also wrote more works of sublime craftsmanship than any composer except J S Bach. Indeed, only Bach, Mozart and Beethoven surpassed his inspira tion, which I would put on a par with Schubert’s. Yet in my case it took a ridiculously long time for the penny to drop, because Haydn’s art conceals itself in a way that no other great composer’s does.
“Haydn is the music of the future still,” wrote the composer Robin Holloway in 1998. “The true extent of his greatness is for the connoisseur a well-kept secret, for the larger public a ticking time-bomb that has yet to go off. When its hour comes, the explosion, rather than a Big Bang, will be a still small voice telling of the strange within the normal, the vast within the modest, the dark within the bright and vice versa: the essence of human experience in essentially musical terms.” Maybe a little more work on that metaphor would have been a good idea, but Holloway is right about the strange within the normal and the vast within the modest. On the other hand, an aspect of Haydn’s modesty was his decision, after a few failed experiments, not to build his musical style around easily memorable tunes. So, this year’s anniversary celebrations notwithstanding, I rather doubt that the time-bomb will ever go off.
How many famous melodies did Haydn write? I can come up with only one: the hymn composed for the birthday of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1797 and later used for the Austrian and German national anthems (“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”) and in Haydn’s own “Emperor” String Quartet. It’s a superb piece of work that cost the old composer a lot of effort, pruning unnecessary notes and perfecting the four-part harmony. It’s also uncharacteristic, in the sense that it’s self-contained and deliberately re-usable. For anyone looking to plunder classical masterpieces for hymns, national anthems or pop songs, Haydn’s music is the last place to look. His melodies might start promisingly, but then disappear into another argument before they get the chance to end, or they scurry off into another key. Even if they are shaped conventionally, they lose their impact without the twists, wisps and cascades of other melodic lines. The themes of the slow movements of Haydn’s string quartets, on which he constructed some of the loveliest sets of variations in musical history, depend for their beauty on the luminous shifting harmonies that encase them.
If Haydn turned the symphony into an art form, the string quartet was a medium he actually invented. For me, they are the heart of his achievement, for although he developed into an orchestrator of genius, the combination of two violins, viola and cello allowed him to achieve an intricate balance of melody, harmony and counterpoint perfectly suited to his intimate genius. He wrote over 60 of them. How many are masterpieces? Thirty? Forty? To employ a cheesy slogan, they are the gift that keeps on giving.
It is in the quartets that we hear the proof of Wilfred Mellers’s observation that Haydn’s mature movements are “all development”. Dozens of movements are built on a single motif, anticipating and inspiring the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Haydn will take a single arpeggio and use it to fashion extraordinary shapes whose movement produces a lighting-quick succession of delicately shaded moods. To be sure, there is “humour”, but that word is often lazy shorthand for subtle effects that can’t be conveyed in programme notes. Sometimes more happens in a four-minute rondo by Haydn than in whole operas by other composers.
Haydn was a pious Catholic, though – unlike the unorthodox Beethoven – he did not attempt to express his own theological ideas (in so far as he had any) in his sacred music. Perhaps that is why it is well suited to the celebration of the liturgy. His late Masses are on my list to get to know properly, along with the mighty Creation, once I’ve finished exploring the quartets. And the piano trios. And the piano sonatas, the best of which equal Beethoven’s and are altogether more substantial than Mozart’s.
As I say, if only the penny had dropped 20 years earlier. But that’s Haydn for you: he waits for you to discover him after your grand passion for more demonstrative geniuses has begun to fade. He is, above all, a composer for grown-ups.