A Conservative Obligation: Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)


The Year of Our Lord 2009 is the bicentenary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn (d. May 31, 1809), known in the last two decades of his long life by the affectionate moniker of “Papa Haydn.” In the aftermath of the most recent American presidential election, just before Barack Obama’s inauguration, I wrote that sane people might do themselves a favor to withdraw their attention from the sordidness of contemporary politics and reacquaint themselves with J. S. Bach’s great work The Art of the Fugue. I have a similar purpose in mind in recommending to the contemporaneously anguished a healing visitation to the richness of Haydn’s large and varied compositional catalogue. Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven shot up and fell back like glorious meteors. Both owed an artistic debt to the older man. Haydn, the most important Western composer after Bach, established his career early and, by gradual self-emancipation from service to the aristocracy, became a public composer, writing steadily for a bourgeois audience, who responded with gratitude. Haydn, in contrast to Mozart and Beethoven, lived long, lived well, and managed to integrate himself securely in the middle-class world of late Eighteenth Century Europe.

Haydn’s Titanic productivity can only humble ordinary people. Having more or less invented the string quartet and the symphony, Haydn supplied them almost wholesale, without ever lowering his standard. His late-in-life oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, made him a London celebrity, and consummated his long relation with a genial English following. One can sometimes entertain the impression that Haydn – pardoning the artistic blasphemy – is a greater composer than Beethoven. I once guiltily confessed this disposition to my friend Steve Kogan, one of the most cultured men I have ever known, who answered with a laconic but telling, “So, you too?

Haydn’s earliest work bespeaks the artistic ambiguity of its time. Musically, Haydn started in the shadow of the Baroque, sharing an idiom, not exactly with Bach, but with the sons of Bach. This idiom reflected, in part, the taste of Haydn’s employer, Prince Esterhaus, who, maintaining a professional court orchestra, had the wisdom to put Haydn in charge of it. From Haydn’s pen in 1760s and 70s come any number of cassations, divertimenti, scherzandi, serenades, and symphonies, employing a diversity of names for a plethora of similar multi-movement works in the gallant style that served as a kind of musical accompaniment to courtly life. Among the youngest “children” of the “Father of the Symphony” is a set of triplets (Nos. 6, 7, and 8 in the conventional ordering) that bear the composer-bestowed programmatic names of Morning, Noon, and Night. These symphonies use an instrumentation that derives audibly from Bach’s “Brandenburg” concertos, giving many prominent solo parts to the first-chair players; but, at the same time, they adopt the new sonata formula of contrasting themes, motivic development, and dramatic recapitulation to emphasize the mood or flavor of the home key.

One odd characteristic of these Esterhaus works is that, coming right at the beginning of musical Classicism, whose syntax and lexicon their composer consolidates, they foreshadow the inflections of a much later Romantic language. This is particularly so in Haydn’s inventive use of the French horns. Listen to the bucolic, echoing figurations in the fourth-movement Menuetto of the Noon Symphony. On the other hand, the same symphony’s unusually designated second-movement “Recitative” resembles a Baroque operatic number – by Handel, perhaps – with what would be the vocal line in a dramatic composition given here to the violin solo. The variety of effects and textures in these extraordinary works makes their pleasure for the listener nearly inexhaustible.

For a long time after his death, Haydn’s music, if not exactly his reputation, existed in something of an eclipse. Concertgoers knew the Haydn of the late “Paris” and “London” Symphonies, and of The Creation, but remained oblivious to the early- and middle-period symphonies, as they did also to the operas and the symphonic masses. Occasionally, the concert programmers would schedule the Farewell Symphony (No. 45, from 1772), during the slow finale of which the musicians leave the stage one by one until only two violinists, both playing with mutes, are left to play the last bars. In the 1940s, Paramount Studios made a short film of the Farewell, costuming the studio musicians in Eighteenth-Century court-dress and powdered wigs. (I once interviewed violist Sven Reher, one of the participants, who recalled that his appearance in the film impressed his friends and relatives more than his musicianship did – and he was a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic string section under Otto Klemperer!)

The stagecraft associated with the Farewell Symphony obscured its musical brilliance, including the formal anomaly of bringing a symphony to its conclusion with a slow movement, the movement itself expiring in an eerie morendo descent into silence. The gesture signified a labor-dispute between the composer and his boss, but after the war it acquired a new, more poignant meaning.

Big-name conductors before World War Two, like Wilhelm Furtwängler or Carl Schuricht, showed interest in only a few works. Furtwängler returned obsessively to Symphony No. 88, ignoring the rest. Carl Schuricht liked Symphony No. 86. Sir Thomas Beecham perhaps promoted Haydn’s most broadly in the mid-century, but overall the sense of Haydn as an archaic composer, whose work appealed mainly to historians of music, persisted. Only after the war did concert programs and recordings begin to catch up with musicology, with the recording studio making inroads difficult to match in the concert hall.

A revival began in the late 1940s when the Haydn Society began to sponsor the systematic recording of Haydn’s music, centering on the quartets and symphonies. The Haydn discography of the late 1940s and early 1950s, much of it for the Society’s label, represents a Golden Age of musical advocacy and intrepidity. The Society’s producers recruited the many of the radio orchestras and new, “chamber” orchestras that sprouted up while Europe struggled to re-civilize itself after the conflict. Mogens Wöldike led the Danish State Radio Chamber Orchestra in spirited performances of Symphonies Nos. 43 (Mercury) and 50. Szymon Goldberg, who had served as Furtwängler’s concertmaster in Berlin until the Nuremburg Laws forced him out, led the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in Symphonies Nos. 44 (Trauer) and 57. Paul Sacher, founder of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, led the Vienna Philharmonic in Symphonies Nos. 53 and 67 (l’Imperiale). The readings can be rough, but the excitement of discovery and the robustness of the attack redeem the flaws. Wöldike’s Danish Haydn in particular retains its infectiousness, as the Copenhagen musicians cut into the music with a type of liberated glee.

These endeavors – Wöldike’s, Goldberg’s, Sacher’s – predate the fussy, old-maidish concern for so-called historical (or period-based) performance practice that compromises the vitality of so many recent sallies into this repertory. So likewise do those of Hermann Scherchen, who undertook a multi-volume survey of the middle-period symphonies for the enterprising Westminster label, a project that spilled over into stereo recording with a number of remakes. Scherchen’s efforts proved particularly effective in demonstrating that this supposedly esoteric music, pre-Mozart and pre-Beethoven, could attract a significant clientele and so qualify as commercially viable. Scherchen understood that Haydn, on his own terms and in his historical context, was a modern, not an archaic, composer. Haydn’s trademark flouting of standard musical expectation, which lies at the heart of his ever-renewing glamour, has a disconcerting but pleasant effect, which is as odd, in its way, as Stravinsky’s syncopated rhythms or Schoenberg’s scrambled tonality.

In the 1960s, conductor Leslie Jones formed The Little Orchestra of London, with which he recorded the “Paris” and “London” symphonies. Jones was an early advocate of period performance practice (although that designation did not yet exist) and, because he was not fanatical about it, one of the best. His performances revived the use of harpsichord continuo in the symphonies, used with reticence and discretion. Jones manages to outdo Scherchen in delivering these scores with a maximum of verve, almost as though he thought of himself as competing with the popular music of the day. Like Scherchen, he recognizes that Haydn was an instrumental colorist, a trait already present in the Morning-Noon-and-Night trio, whose textures were integral to his formal plan. Jones has exercised essential and lasting influence on the subsequent decades of Haydn performance. The Haydn interpretations of Trevor Pinnock, Roy Goodman, Sigiswald Kuijken, Sir Roger Norrington, and John Eliot Gardiner stand indebted to those of Jones. Of course it is the richness of Haydn’s music that permits such splendid variegation of approaches and readings.

Writing in Volume I of Robert Simpson’s 1972 symposium on The Symphony, Harold Truscott suggests why Haydn seems to give so generously:

Haydn’s music shows him to have led an intense inner or spiritual life; he was a modest man, and it is natural that he should have hidden this as much as possible from the world under a guise of cheerfulness and high spirits; but his music could not hide it. There is in all the symphonic writing (and in a number of the string quartets) of the late seventeen-sixties, seventies and early eighties a dark, brooding, even fiercely burning passion. No one can know what spiritual experiences this music commemorates, but it is understandable that the prevailing happiness of the later symphonies is an expression of the gratitude Haydn felt towards his Maker for the life of grace he had been permitted to live.

The response to abundant grace is a débordement of thanksgiving, which we hear in the exuberant molto allegro and prestissimo final-movements, as in L’impériale (No. 53), La chasse (No. 73), and L’ours (No. 82); but the same overflowing, or maybe its source, is audible in the meditative piety of the famous slow introductions to so many of the symphonic first movements, where the large seriousness seems a necessary prerequisite to the actual presentation of the themes and their energetic development.
Let us not forget Haydn the jokester, as in the unexpected fortissimo chord in the relaxed second movement of le surprise (No. 94), or in the introduction of “Turkish” elements into the otherwise equally relaxed second movement of the Militär-Sinfonie (No. 100). The latter, surprisingly, began as the middle movement of a little concerto for portable organ (lyra organizzata) that Haydn wrote for that musical amateur the King of Naples. An economist of his art, Haydn never hesitated to reuse good material.
In the matters of grace and thanksgiving, we should remember that, as one of his duties to his Esterhaus employers, Haydn provided on a regular basis liturgical compositions for the princely chapel. Masses, requiems, psalms, and vespers can sometimes inflict on the concertgoer dilatory solemnities requiring an expenditure of considerable patience. In his liturgical scores, Haydn rarely inflicts such ennui. Indeed, the masses (a dozen or more) correspond to a symphonic plan, adding voices, solo and choral, to the procedural business of the symphonies. Now in the symphonies, Haydn reminds us that his birth had occurred within the lifetimes of Bach and Handel by incorporating devices like canon and fugue in the developmental sections. In the masses, Haydn reverts to baroque procedure even more liberally. But here, as in the symphonies, the fugues and stretti serve subordinately to the emotional-dramatic strategies of the sonata principle.
Although written for private performance, the masses sound just as public as the great, late-period symphonies, none more so than the honorifically entitled Nelson Mass (1798), in D-Minor, also called Missa in Angustiis. Haydn trumps Beethoven in making the minor key the basis for music of pure exaltation and joy. The occasion, Admiral Nelson’s defeat of Napoleon in Egypt, reminds us that Haydn had political good sense. A Free Mason, like his young friend Mozart, Haydn inclined to moderate liberalism, but never to revolutionary sympathies, in his temperament. As the pageantry-requirements of the European Union will henceforward and insistently flog the life out of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” it will be good to have the Nelson Mass on hand; it will perhaps come into its overdue rights while the Ninth Symphony loses its freshness from politicized overexposure and odious associations. (What a pity…)
The Harmonie Mass (1802) also deserves attention, not only for its largeness of scale, but also for the minimal character of its wind-band accompaniment to the chorus. The textures of the Harmonie Mass return in, of all places, the late liturgical works of Igor Stravinsky, such as his Canticles and Threni; Stravinsky’s Symphony in C is also quite “Haydnesque.”
Any discussion of the liturgical works must mention The Seven last Words of Christ on the Cross (1796), which began life as seven slow movements for string quartet, then acquired orchestral garb, until finally Haydn reworked it with orchestra and chorus. The Seven last Words is perhaps the most solemn of all post-Baroque liturgical compositions.
In the last decade of his life, Haydn’s profound experience in the choral vernacular found its ultimate expression in his two secular oratorios, The Creation (1798) and The Seasons (1801), which garnered success for him – and real public acclaim – as his operas never, to his disappointment, had. In both works, so replete with happiness and color, we can hear Eighteenth Century classicism reformulating itself in a new, grander style that is as audacious as Beethoven’s while also being less forced or maniacal. The Prelude to The Creation, as many a musicologist has observed, is so far ahead of its time in its exploitation of chromatic ambiguity, that, isolated from its context, it might fool an uninformed listener into thinking that the composer was Schoenberg. Characteristically, Haydn intended these generous scores for his beloved London audience, his bourgeois audience par excellence. In Wilfrid Mellers’ summation: “Haydn, in The Creation, fuses Handelian oratorio with the dramatic thrust of his own symphonic style” and in doing so “celebrates ethical humanism and the glory of God in Nature.” “Life,” for Haydn, writes Mellers, “is perpetual renewal” – creation and re-creation, through art and morality.
If Haydn conjured forth a new type of humanistic music in symphony, mass, and oratorio, he did so too in that most intimate of Eighteenth-Century musical innovations, the string quartet. It is useful to recall the fondness of Eighteenth Century narrative for dialogue. A story like Dr. Johnson’s Rasselas is almost all dialogue. The String Quartet is dialogic, and nowhere more so than under the mastery of Haydn. According to Mellers, Haydn “wanted to give the string quartet dignity and coherence.” In his early quartets, he uses Bach-like counterpoint to achieve his goal; but, as Mellers remarks, “the counterpoint he wanted to evolve was not baroque, but symphonic.” Haydn’s diligence led to the sublimity of his late quartets, which Beethoven’s might equal but never surpass.
I should like to conclude by making a few, necessarily idiosyncratic, recommendations concerning discography. I am not a musicologist, but merely a music-lover. A real expert would be able, no doubt, to provide a more complete list with better justification than mine. I can say that I have been a disciplined listener to Haydn, mainly through recordings, since I was a teenager in the late 1960s, and that I have often listened to Haydn in company with real musicians who knew the genuine article and were willing to mentor me in how to discern musically to what was going on.
For the symphonies, as long as one is not hung up on the latest digitally revolutionary super-stereo production, Hermann Scherchen’s “Westminster” Haydn (from the 1950s) seems a good place to begin. The sampling in the set, economically boxed by Universal as one of its “Original Masters” offerings, is wide, covering middle-period and late-period, the “Paris” and “London,” symphonies. The six discs comprehend Symphonies Nos. 44, 45, 49, 55, 80, 88, and Nos. 92 – 102, as recorded between 1951 and 1958. All are in detailed monophonic sound except for No. 45, a stereo remake. Scherchen’s stereo remake of No. 100 (Militär-Sinfonie) has been issued, again by universal, as part of a two-CD program in its “Great Conductors” series.
A good, non-period-performance-practice traversal of the “Paris” and “London” Symphonies comes courtesy of the Philips archives, with Sir Colin Davis conducting, who leads the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (“Paris”) and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (“London”). The recordings (from the 1970s) come in two, two-CD sets.
Shamefully, the Leslie Jones / Little Orchestra of London Haydn-sessions seem never to have made the leap from long-playing vinyl to silver disc, at least not for commercial vending. Enterprising investigators might be able to track down CD-transfers of these recordings – or even the original LPs – by patient Internet diligence. They are worth the effort, matching, as they do, modern instrumentation with a kind of bawdy, if speculative, pre-Romantic style, and restoring the continuo. Steady Internet sleuthing may also locate some of Haydn Society recordings by Wöldike and Goldberg, even when no commercial issue exists.
Of the contemporary, period-performance-practice conductors, I like the work of Sigiswald Kuijken, who leads his Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in the “Paris” Symphonies with a verve that does homage to Jones. Roy Goodman and The Hanover Band, and Thomas Fey and The Heidelberger Sinfoniker, have been steadily traversing Haydn’s entire symphonic output in their respective convincing ways; Goodman for Hyperion, who are re-releasing the individual volumes at mid-price, and Fey for Hänssler, who is now about a third of the way through the complete cycle.
For the masses, I have one recommendation: the late Richard Hickox on “Chaconne,” the baroque-and-classical specialty label of Chandos Records. Hickox offers performances in a hybrid of standard and “p-p-p” styles; he has terrific vocal soloists, a lusty chorus, and a responsive, vivacious band in his Collegium Musicum 90. The open-minded explorer who begins anywhere in this series will ultimately crave familiarity with the whole of it.
For The Creation and The Seasons, I again have one recommendation: Sir Thomas Beecham, as served up by EMI from their archives. The recordings are stereophonic – Beecham set them down late in his life – and the re-mastering is superb. The style is big, no vibrato-less gut-strings or toy like calfskin tympani here. The chorus barks out the words in Anglican church-choir fashion and the energy is, as one says, “off the scale.”
The question of the string quartets is more difficult than those of the other genres. My primary suggestion is a remarkable DVD on offer from Opus Arte. The performers are the members of the Lindsay Quartet (Peter Cropper, Violin – Ronald Birks, Violin – Robin Ireland, Viola – and Bernard Gregor-Smith, Cello); they play a program of seven quartets drawn from Opus 20, Opus 33, Opus 42, Opus 54, and Opus 76. The performances took place at the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival in Arctic Finland in 2004. The producers thought to preface each performance with a short discussion of the work by the players, who give a musical summary in addition to remarking on the emotional and formal characteristics of each item. Watching the entire program is rather like sitting through a university extension course on musicology, except that it costs a good deal less and is probably more edifying.
Andrew Rose, proprietor of Pristine Audio (see his website), offers CD transfers and MP3 downloads of the complete Haydn Society string quartet recordings from the 1930s through the late 1940s. Rose also offers one of his signature “ambient stereo” restorations of a January 1949 NBC Symphony concert under Guido Cantelli, whose first half is Haydn’s Symphony No. 93, one of the most towering, colossal Haydn interpretations that I have ever heard. Rose’s acoustic reconstructions make the archival sources superlatively listenable. His website allows an investigator to sample his wares.
Record companies now delete their offerings swiftly (one hardly knows what is “available”), but the market, through the Internet, has created an effective bazaar for second-hand goods of this sort. It is fitting to end an essay on Haydn with an invocation of the market, for Haydn knew and approved of the market. He wrote for it, and those who purchased his goods did so enthusiastically.
Thomas F. Bertonneau teaches English at SUNY Oswego.
See also other BJ articles on music:
A Conservative Obligation: Bach’s Art of the Fugue, 20 January 2009
Why Muslims Like Hitler, but Not Mozart, 11 May 2009
From Meccania to Atlantis - Part 5: From Screeching Cats to SDG, 19 December 2008.
From Meccania to Atlantis - Part 5½: Music We Can Believe In, 26 December 2008

@ Thomas F. Bertonneau

I have finally read the entire article, and I'm glad I did. I am a bit of a recent "convert" to classical music, though I received some education in the history of Western classical music as well as in music theory, as I played the classical guitar for several years. Looking back on it, I wished I had never given up on the instrument. Unfortunately, being pubescent and all that, I did not fully appreciate classical music. Although I never quite liked mainstream popular music, I came to a point where even the less mainstream music I'd listen to just began boring me. No matter what new genre you try, it's mostly the same old story of endlessly repetitive and shallow music. But it's the ridiculous subcultures and questionable roots of certain kinds of music that have always bothered me most, even as a youngster. Most people's notion of culture these days is really one about belonging to a particular group. You not only have to listen to this particular kind of music in order to be accepted into certain groups, you also have to conform to a dress code, to a way of (not) behaving and carrying yourself, being hip, cool, modern, rebellious, and so on. The truth behind all these silly notions of rebelliousness and non-conformity, is that all these different subcultures essentially are the same nonsense; they are the epitome of blind conformism rather than individualism, of collectivist elitism and void notion of supremacy based on outward appearance, a celebration of vulgarity and immaturity, lacking any sense of dignity, propriety, higher purpose, or art. I'm not saying anyone is a superior being for listening to classical music. I hate snobs for whom classical music is merely a status symbol; I come from a very modest family, nothing like what you'd call the 'upper-class'. What this is really about is civilization, or the denigration of true culture, and the degeneration of our civilization, rather. Music celebrating and instilling blatant hedonism on people is not art, it is repulsive non-art - noise, not music. Like the drums that lead pagan tribes into a state of trance to worship their vain idols, modern music and 'culture' in general, is a return to a celebration of tribality, outwardness; a worship of self and of licentiousness rather than virtue and liberty. I think that it is fair to say that, to varying degrees, a lot of popular music is destroying people's minds, especially affecting - of course- youngsters, whom of all people are certainly the most susceptible to manipulation, and who grow up being surrounded by this drivel and are pressured to conform to the immoral majority. And mind you, it wasn't so long ago that I'd listen to the lowest of the lowest, hardly understanding what their lyrics were actually saying, and yet being corrupted by its subconscious influence on me. I see many people around me not being able to grow up because of their deep devotion to some popular music genre and the culture surrounding it - cultures of partying, drugs, sex, alcohol; or of Black supremacy, violence, rebelliousness, anarchy, and so on. However, music in itself probably is not the main cause of this unwillingness to grow up. I wouldn't say all pop music or jazz in the 40s or 50s was necessarily decadent, hedonistic 'non-art', but what has grown out of it in later decades certainly is. Thus, much of our current pop music is, of course, a reflection and a consequence of the depravity of mankind, enhanced by a militant secularism since the 60s that abhors any sense of order and virtue in society, and places no value on the relationships that really matter in life; first and foremost, that among family members. Totalitarian societies have always wanted to abolish parenthood and the natural relations between family members. I believe that much of our pop culture is essentially doing the same, though it is doing so in a more subtle manner, by promoting rebellion against age-old values and order, and bringing an apparent division between people who subscribe to different subcultures that really all come down to the same. Now to return to the topic of Haydn, I have to say I really enjoy his music, and I agree that it's regrettable that his music has been overshadowed by that of later classicist composers. I would like to thank you for this and many other contributions you've made to the Brussels Journal. I will note down the recommendations you made in your article, and try to get my hands on some good performances of his works. Keep up the good work!



Good essay in response to Prof. Bertonneau's essay on Haydn. Probably popular music has contributed to the moral deficit of the West, since few of us are strong enough to drink its poison without being harmed.

Still, popular music is not devoid of all participation in the Good. Doesn't Led Zeppelin sometimes achieve perfection of a kind? And don't the Beatles, with astonishing frequency? And consider the elegant theme and variations of a blues-rock classic like George Thorogood's "One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer"?

Most popular music, and the ways of participating in performances thereof, fall in the "life is too short" category. But if you're so inclined, it is a worthy calling to cultivate what is good in popular music, and cut away what is bad.

For your edification I post a link to WNYC 2, a public station that plays more contemporary classical than KUSC. I hope you find it interesting.


A Conservative Obligation

I'm off to my local record shop, toute de suite, to check out the availability of those musical recommendations . I might even take a copy of Mr Bertonneau's magnificent article with me and show it to what I'm sure will turn out to be a much bemused store manager. (No, I'm not buying online, as I much prefer the traditional interaction  between customer and vendor). Thanks again Mr Bertonneau for yet another, and I'll use the word again, "magnificent" article.