Blast from the past: a thing I wrote about Haydn

At one point or another, I was writing for about the performing arts in Kansas City, but I sucked at it, in large part because I generally can’t write well. That being said, one thing I did write actually was good, and it was this article about Haydn. I don’t really remember why I wrote an article about Haydn, other than the fact that I really like Haydn, but whatever. This is from 2009, the 200-year anniversary of Haydn’s death, which may have been the point of writing it, directly contradicting what I just said. Anyway, read this if you like because Haydn is awesome and I hope I demonstrated that properly.

Portrait of a bad ass motherfucker.

Portrait of a bad ass motherfucker.

The most ruthless among us will stab a person in the back.  The most cold and calculated among us will stab a person in the front.  But it takes the most creative among us to stab a person in the front without them even knowing it.

This is Joseph Haydn.

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death, and we still don’t know what to make of him.  This is a man who is chiefly responsible for two musical forms you may have heard of: the symphony and the string quartet.  This is a man who assembled one of the great musical ensembles of history and performed radical musical experiments on them with an inventive spirit that makes Alexander Graham Bell seem like a guy who strung a couple cans together.  This is a man who has an output as diverse and expansive as any composer in history.

And yet, this is a man who is on the outside looking in on the composer stratosphere.  If only his last name started with ‘B.’ …

The lore of musical history is tied up in anecdotes, legends, personalities, and circumstances.  From Beethoven’s deafness to the riots at the Rite of Spring premiere, Mahler’s Jewish identity crisis to Mozart’s death at the hand of Salieri, the images of composers emerge larger-than-life when backed by a powerful mythology that sometimes is more myth than it is “ology.”  The problem with myths is that they go both ways.

In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, the myths surrounding Haydn persist:  a naive, simple servant, a man cut off from the musical pulse of the world by location.  He violated one of the first great rules of being acknowledged as a great composer (or a great anything according to the Greeks)  by living to the ripe old age of 77.  He had a wealthy patron for much of his career.  He was by all accounts a kind, engaging, thoughtful, funny man.  And so a term borne out of musicians’ respect for him morphed into a one word summation of the myth:  Papa.

Because of this myth, and the powerful myths of his two closest artistic contemporaries, we are left with statements like this from Andrew Clark of the Financial Times of London:

“His place in the pantheon may be assured but even ardent admirers would not put him on a par with Mozart and Beethoven, younger contemporaries he knew well. “His music, though beautifully melodious and impeccably constructed, lacks the former’s sublime effortlessness and the latter’s defiant romanticism. Unlike them, there was nothing remotely fatalistic or mysterious about his profile. He was no Wunderkind. He was employed for 48 of his 77 years by the wealthy Esterházys, a Hungarian aristocratic family, and he lived and died a Kapellmeister – a word that has condescending overtones, signifying a dutiful role in the order of things, always subservient to a patron or institution.”

The truth is, Haydn’s music is a perfect blend of sublime effortlessness and defiance and a thousand other things.  Thing is…you don’t even realize it.

My friend Ken Woods is a conductor and cellist based in Wales, and his blog “A View From The Podium” has received tremendous critical acclaim from the likes of Grammophone, The New Yorker, and the Wall Street Journal.  His most recent entry explores the similarities between Haydn and Dmitri Shostakovich as composers who speak “in code,” and in so doing perpetuate the myths surrounding them while actually shattering them at the same time.  It is a fascinating insight into Haydn’s creativity by a musician deeply in the know.

And it is with these types of insights in mind that we begin to understand that Haydn is the composer’s composer in the same way Ben Kingsley is an actor’s actor.  To truly appreciate the unbelievable complexity of Haydn’s music, you must work to understand it.  It stands on its own, yes, and it receives a good share of performances worldwide, but because we tend to be metal detectors more than shovels, Haydn inevitably lags behind The Three B’s and Mozart.

Here in Kansas City, for example, the upcoming season for the KC Symphony features two works of Haydn (the Symphony no. 49 and the Lord Nelson Mass).  Conversely, there is an entire concert entitled “Magnificent Mozart,” three works by Jean Sibelius (one of my favorite composers), and the same number of works as Haydn by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvorak, Ravel, Mahler, Tschaikovsky, Schubert, and Stravinsky.  While I understand the natural demand for the works of these composers, a figure like Haydn ought to have entire retrospectives dedicated to his life and music, and by and large they simply are not there (in fairness, it is better than Mendelssohn, who is only represented by the Violin Concerto in the upcoming KCS season despite 2009 being the 200th anniversary of his birth).

“There is no greater composer than Joseph Haydn.”  Sir Simon Rattle proclaimed this at the 2008 BBC Proms, probably to the surprise of many.  If given a closer listen, Haydn will reveal things that you never thought possible.  A genius like his is reserved for the greatest of us.  Had he been a doctor, a politician, a serial killer, or a professor, I suspect Haydn would have reached similar heights.  Fortunately for us, in a variety of ways, he chose composing music.  We are willing victims of his creativity, if we only give ourselves up.


2 thoughts on “Blast from the past: a thing I wrote about Haydn

  1. Your blog is awesome!
    What are your favourites works from him? I want give a shot to Papa, but for a man with 4032 symphonies and 347 quartets i need some help…
    Cheers from Brazil

  2. Hi Marcos,

    Thanks for stopping in, and thank you for your kind words. My favorite Haydn works tend to be the symphonies, and if I were to recommend a few to start with, I would personally suggest nos. 88, 92, and 94. All three of these show off the traits that make Haydn so special: supremely confident melodies, daring harmonies (for the time), and a sense of just being chill and bad ass. Let me know if you get a chance to hear them and tell me what you think!

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