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The heights of Joseph Haydn
December 2017 / January 2018

Joseph Haydn:  No composer makes us smile more (©DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)


Arecent concert by the Doric string quartet at the Wigmore Hall stimulates the thought that one of the gifts reserved for age concerns Joseph Haydn: with maturity comes the recognition that he is a composer on an equal footing with Mozart.

For some reason, this is an insight which is hidden from the young. You will find a hundred student enthusiasts for Mozart’s minor key piano concertos or last three symphonies, say, for every one who champions even the most celebrated works of Haydn.

This difference in appreciation is not explained by the (in context) trivial biographical differences between them: the allure (if such it be) of Mozart’s precocious talent, infantile sense of humour, troubled relationships, intermittent penury and early death, as compared with Haydn’s long and presumptively uneventful life, much spent in liveried service to a great aristocratic family, a composer admired and affectionately beheld by all who knew him (except his wife). More germane perhaps is the daunting quantity of Haydn’s output: where does one start with more than 100 symphonies, 68 string quartets, dozens of operas, oratorios and masses, to say nothing of 126 baryton trios, whatever they might be?

Some might argue that there are also musical reasons why the inexperienced ear tends to prefer Mozart. His greater use of thematic contrast and variety within movements, the tendency towards longer melodic lines, a more chromatic approach to harmony appearing to imply a greater pathos and emotional depth — these are all liable to appeal to the romantic young. To state these perceptions as arguable is not to accept all of them as true: when he chooses, Haydn reaches emotional depths quite equal to Mozart’s; indeed there is nothing in Mozart’s oeuvre equal to the desperation of the closing pages of Haydn’s F minor variations for piano; one must await the last slow movements of Schubert for anything of comparable intensity. It is however true to say that Haydn’s characteristic mood is one of life-affirming warmth and high-spiritedness of soul, so long as one does not understand thereby some form of vapid or superficial cheerfulness. Perhaps more than any other classical composer, Haydn’s music calls to mind Schopenhauer’s reference to

. . . the inexpressible intimacy of music, which allows it to pass before us like a paradise that is so utterly familiar and yet eternally foreign, so entirely comprehensible and yet so inexplicable.

His faster movements are often energetic, sometimes confiding — curious, ingenious, unpredictable. There is no composer who makes one smile more, and smile for joy at the combination of unforced beauty and inventiveness. His rapt adagios are often ineffably profound, replete with unverbalisable meaning and seriousness. His 18th-century minuets become transformed before our eyes into timeless scherzos. The finales are firework displays of rhythmic vitality, learning lightly worn — or both. The Austrian-born British musicologist Hans Keller made the truthful point that

because [Haydn] matured so incomprehensibly late, he was the only composing genius who reached a prolonged, consistent, late climax during which he was, simultaneously, young, middle-aged, and old.

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 . . .

Among these exceptional 45 quartets, the Op 20 set of six, composed in 1772, is a phenomenon, for the full appreciation of which it is necessary to understand the special nature of Haydn’s musical evolution. Although Bruckner and Janáček were also late developers, Haydn’s case is more extreme. If he had died in 1767 aged 35, at or beyond the age to which Mozart and Schubert lived, he would have been recalled as a minor 18th-century composer only, scarcely more distinguished (as Richard Wigmore points out) than his gifted but unambitious younger brother Michael. Over the next few years, something happened within his creative spirit, first with the so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies written in this period, and then — most extraordinarily — in the realm of the string quartet. The tendency to look for emotional or biographical causes should be resisted, not least because we find it difficult to conceive of the composer as artist other than through the prism of the Romantic movement, and its idolisation of Beethoven in particular. Nonetheless, reasons there were, albeit they are probably to be found in the cultural and intellectual climate of the time — the significant developments in German thought and poetics effected by Goethe and Schiller, together with the culmination in Rousseau of a radical stream of thought which can in retrospect be seen as a precursor of the Romantic movement. Haydn was in no sense part of this movement, but his Op 20 finds him in liberated mood, exercising new powers of self-expression and disinhibition, alternately exploiting and undermining the already-established rules of classical composition.

The enormous leap forward made by Beethoven in his “Eroica” Symphony is well-known; Mozart’s piano concerto K271 is a similar, if obscurer case. It is time for Haydn’s Op 20, inconspicuous as it may be, to be recognised as outstripping even the advances cited. It is no exaggeration to see it as one of the most important events in the history of classical music. Indeed it may be said to have definitively launched the classical style, and represented a decisive departure from the superficialities of the galante idiom prevalent in the mid-18th century. Keller refers to it as a “sudden, late and sustained explosion of genius”; while Tovey says that:

Every page of the six quartets of Op 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance; there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much or achieved it so quietly . . . Further progress [in the subsequent 38 quartets] is not progress in any historical sense, but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.

There are numerous features of the Op 20 set which are special and new, many of which directly foreshadow the quartets of Beethoven. There are structural innovations within movements, including radical alterations to the basic sonata form scheme (of exposition, development, recapitulation, coda); there is a marked prominence given (for the first time in any sustained way) to the cello; there is a greater range of expression; there is a profusion of metric tricks and asymmetries; there is a constant delight in defeating the expectations of the listener, as with false recapitulations and unexpected quiet endings.

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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