Strange how certain extremely famous creators are not really famous after all. For proof of this sub-Chestertonian paradox, consult Franz Joseph Haydn, who seems in many respects the musical counterpart to Mark Twain’s definition of a literary classic: “something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” The normally perspicacious Schumann—possibly misled by the “Papa” which common usage all too swiftly attached to Haydn’s name —dismissed Haydn as “a familiar friend of the house whom all greet with pleasure and with esteem but who has ceased to arouse any particular interest.” Tchaikovsky remained only slightly more enthusiastic: “I also like some things of Haydn.” Kingsley Amis, in 1982, exhibited downright contempt: “Except perhaps for J.S. Bach, Haydn was the laziest of the great composers.” (Proof, if we required proof, that a verdict once passed upon Belloc fits Amis still more: “As he grew older the rather juvenile desire to ‘shock’ grew stronger and not weaker.”)
Overall it is surprising how accurate the remark credited both to pianist Paul Badura-Skoda and musicologist Sir Donald Tovey—“Haydn The Unknown”—continues to be now. For Cincinnati-based editor Donald Vroon, writing in 1992, “Haydn is almost like a secret.” Two years beforehand, former New York Times critic Joseph Horowitz had provided mostly illuminating specifics about this quasi-clandestine role:
[Haydn] … holds limited popular appeal. He is not a sufferer, a lover, a confessor, a combatant—all the personae we expect our heroic musical executants to embody. His knowing wit and repartee privately gratify the attuned interpreter. Interpreters otherwise attuned—to a mass public, for instance—smooth away his subversive detail, transforming him into a cut-rate Mozart.
In one respect Horowitz’s conclusion is inept because parochial. Outside the New York Times mindset, no automatic contradiction exists between “a mass public” and Haydn’s output. During his own day a Leipzig magazine, the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, stressed this very truth, calling Haydn “a source of wonder and admiration from Lisbon to St. Petersburg and Moscow and beyond/” So hard a time did publishers experience in meeting the demand for his sheet music—a demand particularly strong within the domestic performance sector—that several sharp operators cynically affixed the name “Haydn” to many an inferior and otherwise unsellable score by lesser hands. Many resultant misattributions bedeviled Haydn scholarship until well after 1945, when the late biographer and archivist H.C. Robbins Landon began proselytizing.
Horowitz is, nonetheless, right to stress Haydn’s “knowing wit and repartee,” as well as the problems accruing to Haydn’s repute in a world where (Tom Wolfe’s phrase) “the artist is viewed as a holy beast.” Each new generation seems obliged to rediscover Haydn. How much of the man’s music—even with 2014’s profusion of gigantic CD boxes—is commonly heard, as opposed to being paid bland textbook homage? Perhaps a dozen of his more than 100 symphonies; perhaps half a dozen of his more than 30 string quartets; the Gypsy Rondo Piano Trio (he wrote a mere 44 other pieces in the same genre); The Creation, among the few oratorios ever to rival Handel’s and Mendelssohn’s in popularity; a handful of his Mass settings and piano sonatas; the sole genuinely renowned trumpet concerto of all time; very little else, save for specialist revivals. He might fare better among today’s concert impresarios for being one more debauched attitudinizing druggie pagan bellyacher, instead of what he actually was: devout, dutiful, marked by peasant realism, polite without sliminess, tough without swagger, free from cheap angst; above all, sane.
No environmental advantages explain this sanity. Quite the opposite: Haydn (like Dr. Johnson, 23 years his senior, whom he never met) had a far more impoverished upbringing than many a pampered narcissist. For “impoverished” read “periodically unfed.” Aspects of his often painful nurture emerge afresh from Playing Before The Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn, by Calvin R. Stapert (Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2014). A much-needed, up-to-date, single-volume survey of the master, this book exemplifies in its very title one of modern musicology’s most encouraging trends: the admission—briskly formulated by Orwell, whose purported atheism fooled no-one worth fooling—that an artist’s “religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but … will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.” Bad news for Marxists, cultural or otherwise. Good news for adults.
Few composers can boast on their curricula vitae a deliberate and successful avoidance of gelding. Haydn could. The sweetness and accuracy of young “Sepperl” Haydn’s treble voice, in the choir of Vienna’s Stephansdom, instilled in choirmaster Georg Reutter the desire to turn the boy from a treble into a castrato. Mercifully the lad’s father intervened and aborted Reutter’s plan, first interrogating his son as to whether the castration had already occurred (“Sepperl, does anything hurt you? Can you still walk?”). In 1748—the boy’s 16th year—his voice conventionally broke; and since his adult singing timbre lacked all merit, his chorister days ended. Not before a memorable prank: at one point “Sepperl” climbed up to some out-of-bounds cathedral scaffolding, only to be discovered there by no less an authority than Empress Maria Theresa, who furiously ordered him thrashed. Decades later, Haydn met the Empress again and—in that gemütlich atmosphere which her reign never lost—reminded her of the thrashing. Subject and monarch shared a retrospective chuckle.
This meeting occurred in northwestern Hungary during 1773, by which time Haydn had already served for 12 years the local Esterhazy noble house. He would stay on this dynasty’s payroll till 1790. Here we encounter yet another aspect of Haydn’s ethos which sticks in Romanticism’s craw: his willingness to join and stay with the hired help, instead of starving in a garret. Amid the mild constraints and passing disappointments of such domestic tenure, Haydn enjoyed an inner freedom almost unimaginable to any genius a century on. He himself admitted as much, reflecting: “I was cut off from the world, there was no-one to confuse me, and so I was forced to become original.” Two-thirds of his symphonies and all but two of his 16 operas—the palace could boast two theaters, one designed for marionettes—derived from his Esterhazy employment.
“Haydn’s office as a composer,” in Professor Stapert’s words, “was indeed high, but he carried it out humbly before his Creator in the service of his fellow creatures.” A diligence all the more remarkable in that notwithstanding the fatuous “Papa” tag, his sunniness of nature had no foundation in domestic contentment. On the rebound from his true love, Therese Keller (a wig-maker’s daughter, who took the veil through parental fiat rather than from inner conviction), Haydn married Therese’s elder sister, Maria Anna. The union lasted 40 disastrous years, during which husband and wife generally lived apart. About Haydn’s alleged extramarital trysts, Professor Stapert is unfashionably tactful, for the good reason that—except for one well-documented affair—conjecture dominates. And even from that solitary overt relationship, during the 1780s with singer Luigia Polzelli, the composer emerges more as the pursued than the pursuer.
Extremely well known (Professor Stapert inevitably cites it) is Haydn’s avowal to Leopold Mozart about Wolfgang: “I tell you before God and as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by reputation.” Less celebrated but just as authentic is Mozart’s defense of his champion, when rehearsals of an exceptionally novel passage in a Haydn string quartet prompted one hack to observe: “I would not have written it that way.” “Nor I,” Mozart hotly retorted, “and do you know why? Because neither of us would ever have had so good an idea.” By now essays galore, and several books, have tracked the stylistic symbiosis between Haydn’s quartet-writing style and Mozart’s. Suffice it to emphasize here how scarce, in any artistic field, such total freedom from envy is among the creative elect. The Brahms-Dvorak friendship alone is comparable in music.
Yet for every 50 textbook encomia to Haydn’s achievements for orchestral and chamber forces, it is rare to find even one likewise appreciative of Haydn’s output for the Church. Whether or not such reticence originates in a residual anti-Catholicism, the truth remains: to hear Haydn’s Missa In Angustiis, Missa In Tempore Belli, and Little Organ Mass in their liturgical context is to apprehend a sense of the scores’ purpose-built rightness for that context, a rightness unobtainable in any concert-hall or recorded performance, however distinguished. Whilst Professor Stapert makes heavy weather of ostensibly trivial sections in these works, nothing in such sections is irreconcilable with Haydn’s own words (similar to the aged Rossini’s): “I hope God will not be angry if I am irrepressibly cheerful in my worship of Him.”
When Napoleon’s forces bombarded Vienna, the dying Haydn reassured his devoted servants: “Children, don’t be afraid, for where Haydn is, nothing can happen.” Once Austria’s capital had surrendered in May 1809, the invaders not only refused to humiliate Haydn; they honored him. In an incident unthinkable amid the 20th century’s total wars and spittle-flecked chauvinism, a French captain visited the fading composer to offer him homage, and actually sang to him an extract from The Creation’s Part II. Nineteen days later he was dead, leaving behind him a corpus that at its finest evokes Augustine’s lament: “Too late have I loved thee, thou beauty ever ancient, ever new.” English historian Charles Burney paid statelier and more detailed tribute to Haydn’s productions, from which “I have received more pleasure late in life, when tired of most other music, than I ever enjoyed in the most ignorant and rapturous part of my youth, when everything was new, and the disposition to be pleased was undiminished by criticism or satiety.”
Essential Haydn (Is There Any Other Sort?):
In addition to the masterpieces which the main article specifically identifies, any literate music-lover should know Haydn’s last 12 numbered symphonies, all written after 1791 (these include “The Clock”, “The Drumroll”, and “The London”), as well as the six mid-1780s symphonies collectively classified under the rubric Paris. All those compositions have been recorded by every conductor and his uncle. But plenty of far more seldom recollected Haydn symphonies are equally, if not more, worth exploring. A purely capricious selection among these: No. 22 (“The Philosopher”), with its amazingly original use of not one but two cor-anglais players; No. 49 (“Passion”), perhaps the single most tragic piece Haydn ever gave us; and No. 60, with its six movements and Dadaist finale.
Haydn’s piano sonatas remain (compared with Mozart’s and Beethoven’s) underestimated, and even Horowitz’s superb advocacy of them generated less interest than you would expect. Not even the silliest listener could go wrong with the Sonata No. 48 in C.
As for Haydn’s chamber music, most of us, if forced to select a single item from that catalog, would go for one of the last string quartets: the Emperor of 1796 (Opus 76 No. 3), with its set of variations on the world’s noblest national anthem, Haydn’s own Emperor’s Hymn. That glorious melody—as we can now appreciate from sketches—gave its creator great trouble before he hit on the final version. Once he had done so, it remained the favorite of all his works.
Playing Before The Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn
by Calvin R. Stapert
Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2014
Paperback, 304 pp.