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The heights of Joseph Haydn
December 2017 / January 2018


Perhaps the most striking novelty in the set is the presence of no fewer than three fugal finales. This is more interesting than it may sound. The fugue was of course the vehicle of Baroque expression par excellence: it is impossible to contemplate Bach without thinking of his fugues. Haydn does not merely revive the old form; he makes it fun (a term capable of being applied to by no means all of Bach’s countless works in this form). In Tovey’s words, he knows “how to let a fugue passage break out in a sonata movement and boil over quickly enough to accomplish dramatic action instead of obstructing it”. The character in Kingsley Amis’s novel Girl, 20 who considered the fugue Western music’s most boring invention was clearly unacquainted with Haydn’s Op 20. While Mozart never took the fugue to heart in his instrumental music, Haydn’s essays in the form are not only entirely natural, but lead straight to the gigantism of Beethoven’s late fugues — the finale of the Hammerklavier sonata and the Grosse Fuge Op 133 itself.

So when one considers what seem at first hearing to be six modestly-scaled string quartets, and listens to them with the attention and affection that informed writers and music-lovers have accorded them, it is easy to understand why Brahms, who had many links with Haydn and who once owned the autograph manuscripts of Op 20, said of him, “What a man! Beside him we are just wretches.” Perhaps more obliquely, Nietz-sche wrote of Haydn’s genius that it went as far as the limits that morality sets to the intellect. However it is put, we should accept the assessment of the great masters, and listen to much more Haydn.
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