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The heights of Joseph Haydn
December 2017 / January 2018


So far as we know, Beethoven revered both Haydn and Mozart equally. Although he claimed that he never learned anything from Haydn, who was at one time his teacher, this was no more than an utterance of youthful rebelliousness, and is demonstrably untrue. Indeed, there is little doubt that of the two he was more influenced by Haydn. To take the case of humour, for example, Haydn and  Beethoven are far and away the funniest composers who have ever written serious music. As Alfred Brendel has observed, the pianist who does not see the jokes in their sonatas should become an organist. One struggles to find many jokes in Mozart, outside his operas, and there are even fewer good ones. (Indeed, the dinner-party question — “Who is the third-funniest classical composer?” — has no easy answer.)

Haydn can claim to have created the modern prototype of not one, but two of the paradigm forms in which composers were to express themselves throughout the classical and romantic ages: the symphony (at least in its modern conception, as a work of expressive and dramatic potential) and the string quartet. But it is in connection with the string quartet that his achievement is the greater, as the most celebrated 20th-century Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon recognised. It is difficult to describe in words Haydn’s merits in this genre, other than in metaphor or cliché. Goethe famously described the string quartet as a conversation between four intelligent people. With Haydn, what one imagines is an idealised conversation between four distinct, witty and uncompetitive high-table intellectuals blessed with a fundamental like-mindedness and Augustan equipoise. (By wit is meant here something different from humour, but the quartets contain plenty of both.)

Keller wrote probably the most important (and certainly the least modest) book on the Haydn quartets. He enumerated 45 “profound and profoundly different, absolutely flawless, consistently original master quartets, each a violent, multi-dimensional contrast to any of the others”; he asked:

Pace the ultimate metaphysical discoveries of Beethoven’s late quartets, which great quartet composer’s output in the medium can begin to compare with Haydn’s comprehensive testament?

It is of parenthetical interest that Keller’s intellectual self-confidence was at times as breathtaking (and amusing) as the compositions of his subject. Donald Tovey, the doyen of musicologists, whose extended essay in Cobbett’s Cyclopedia of Chamber Music was the first treatment of the quartets to deal with them as individualised works of standing, is dismissed by Keller in these terms:

It pains me to assault as musical an observer as Tovey but  . . . when he says that the first movement [of Op. 33 No 4] is . . . the greatest Haydn had so far achieved, all he demonstrates is surprisingly superficial knowledge of nine other opening movements. But then notwithstanding his shafts of esoteric insight, he remained a lifelong outsider . . .
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