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Andrew Clark: Seeking Haydn

England gave Haydn's music an urbanity and daring it had hitherto lacked

The Life of Haydn
By David Wyn Jones
Cambridge University Press £50, 253 pages

By David Vickers
Naxos £12.99, 203 pages

Haydn’s Visits to England
By Christopher Hogwood
Thames & Hudson £12.95 116 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.36

Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn
Edited by David Wyn Jones
OUP £16.99, 515 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.59

The Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn
By Richard Wigmore
Faber £8.99, 388 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.19

The 2009 New Year’s day concert in Vienna, an annual event telecast worldwide, included one item that did not fall anywhere near the category of a Viennese waltz. It was Joseph Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony, notable for the way the orchestral musicians disappear one by one from the stage during the final movement. The work arouses a mixture of amusement and bemusement whenever it is played, and Daniel Barenboim’s January 1 performance with the Vienna Philharmonic milked the music for all it was worth.

More from Books - Nov-24Nothing could have been better calculated to kick-start the 200th anniversary of Haydn’s death. But so far, the year has generated less interest than might be expected of a composer of Haydn’s renown. 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.

This poses a problem for the music industry, which sees musical anniversaries as a golden egg. How do you reassess or repackage a composer about whom virtually everything is known, who wrote no opera of note and whose copious output of keyboard sonatas, string quartets and classical symphonies seems over-cultivated for our sensation-hungry age?

In the literary field the technique for exploiting the composer anniversary has become almost formulaic. You issue a new master biography, claiming to make all sorts of revelations that will overturn the neat personality-portrait bequeathed us by posterity. Hand-in-hand with this revisionism comes a raft of musicological discoveries whose importance is inevitably exaggerated, and an exposé of the composer’s sex life, which will be portrayed as more active – preferably with illicit overtones – than has hitherto been known. The composer should also be revealed as someone who shamelessly plagiarised his contemporaries, but did so with such crafty discernment that he ended up on top.

So it is no surprise to find David Wyn Jones’s The Life of Haydn making strenuous attempts to add spice and complexity to a life that has hitherto been seen as unusual only for its longevity and lack of tragic incident. Jones, professor of music at Cardiff University and an authority on the classical period, has been telling and retelling Haydn’s story in various forms for more than two decades. This time round, his mission is to probe “the darker side of Haydn’s personality, his commercial opportunism and double dealing, his penny pinching and his troubled marriage”. But the evidence doesn’t add up.

On the question of plagiarism, yes, Haydn was not averse to passing off others’ music as his own. But as Jones himself points out, the most internationally celebrated composer of the 1780s and 1790s was far more sinned against: all composers indulged in a bit of “borrowing” in the pre-copyright era, and many borrowed heavily from Papa Joe. As for sex, no one has ever doubted that Haydn found ways of compensating for his notoriously loveless marriage but he covered his tracks and never allowed carnality to corrupt his musical mission.

At the other end of the scale from Jones’s academic moralising, it’s in the spirit of our age that an attempt should be made to “democratise” Haydn – a prime example of which is the CD-assisted “life and works” treatment. Step forward musicologist and journalist David Vickers with Haydn: His Life and Music, a sensibly innocuous résumé with no pretensions to be anything more than a beginner’s guide.

Somewhere in the middle come three volumes that blur the edges between the popular and the erudite. By doing so they rekindle interest in a composer who, with our two centuries of hindsight, emerges as the very personification of Enlightenment man: rational, scholarly, tolerant, socially and intellectually progressive, albeit tinged with the Catholic traditions of the 18th-century Habsburg empire.

The enthusiasm for and knowledge of the music that the English conductor-harpsichordist Christopher Hogwood communicates in the concert hall are reflected in Haydn’s Visits to England, a brisk and breezy roundup of contemporary source material for the composer’s two action-packed London residencies in the early 1790s. This was the period that sealed Haydn’s international celebrity: he was lionised by English high society in a way that makes his long service at the Esterházy court seem prosaic and his condescending recognition by the imperial family in Vienna quite scandalous. England gave his music an urbanity and daring it had hitherto lacked. Without those “London” symphonies and the late, quasi-orchestral string quartets, not to mention the two great pantheistic oratorios on English texts, Haydn’s reputation would be that of a minor composer.

Hogwood’s is the only volume to quote extensively from the notebooks Haydn made during his visits to Britain, and they are more than worth the read, for they speak to us, unadulterated, of his meticulousness, his industriousness, his innate curiosity, his flawless propriety, his fundamental modesty and his dutifulness – the quality that impelled him, exhausted by London’s non-stop demands and charms, to return to a quieter life at home.

David Wyn Jones crops up again, this time in more digestible form, as editor of the Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn, first published eight years ago and now retouched for the anniversary market. This does for Haydn what the Cambridge Encyclopedia series did so admirably three years ago for Mozart: in single-volume dictionary format it packages everything you could ever want to know about the composer’s lifetime and legacy.

By dipping in and out you get up-to-the-minute scholarship in bitesize form but you also get a much broader focus than a life-and-works study. To take just one example: Haydn is the only anniversary book to attempt a definition of Enlightenment, winning points for starting its five-page essay with the assertion that “the Enlightenment does not lend itself to straightforward definition or the convenience of a unified view”. Likewise, it does not limit its description of Eisenstadt, principal home of the Esterházys, to Haydn’s period. As well as providing a background history of the town’s place in the maelstrom of middle European politics, it tells us that “a modern visitor wishing to recreate Haydn’s movements around the town can do so with ease”.

Purists may deride the cultural tour-guide approach but that sense of physical placement is a wonderful way to introduce oneself to a classical composer’s world – giving Haydn a big advantage over Handel and Purcell, two of this year’s other anniversary composers, whose footsteps in London are harder to retrace. The downside is that our detailed knowledge of Haydn has advanced so far since the 1950s that the popularisation process has already reached its limit. The benchmark was set by HC Robbins Landon, doyen of 20th-century Haydn biographers, whose groundbreaking scholarship was matched by the common touch.

That was 40 years ago. His invaluable Thames & Hudson volume, The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn, is now inexplicably out of print (though copies occasionally come up for sale online). And so, on the premise that each generation needs to find its own path to the past, there was room for something to take its place.

It’s that same breadth of cultural-historical perspective, fused with enthusiasm for and deep knowledge of the music, that makes The Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn a worthy successor to Robbins Landon and the most valuable contribution to the anniversary market. The author is Richard Wigmore, a musicologist who specialises in the Viennese classics.

As Nicholas Kenyon’s Mozart volume has already proved, the Faber guides are a more substantial undertaking than the “pocket” appellation suggests. Wigmore’s lightly worn erudition is deceptive: without over-simplifying he has a knack of clarifying and contextualising all the relevant material, and is not afraid to give us the benefit of his own opinion. In his magisterial guide to individual works, he offers more insights than any other Haydn authority, signing off his chapter on The Seasons with the observation that the work “is killed by an excess of solemnity in performance”.

Wigmore demonstrates that it is not enough for today’s scholars to know the territory through and through. They have to be able to sift and communicate it in a way that makes the reader drop the book and run to the music. Wigmore achieves that and more: he made me want to get on the next budget flight to Austria; to walk down the main street in Rohrau, Haydn’s birthplace; to attend a performance at Esterháza, where there are ambitious plans to rebuild the main opera house.

In an age that prizes sensation, it’s all too easy to dismiss Haydn as boring. That is to miss the point about his life and music. Even if the 21st century hasn’t accorded Haydn the full biopic treatment, it can surely recognise in him an entrée to an age of unrivalled patronage, as fascinating for the people he knew as for the art that transformed him from a village cartwright’s son into the toast of European royalty.

As Wigmore makes clear, it’s the subtlety of Haydn’s music that rewards the attentive listener. And the impeccably wigged Austrian Kapellmeister had no more discerning audience than Prince Nikolaus I, the second and most musically minded of his four Esterházy patrons. Haydn composed the “Farewell” Symphony in 1772 not as a joke for consumption in Vienna, where he remained a lifelong outsider, but as a reprimand to his employer, who expected his musicians to spend long summer months separated from their families.

Haydn’s solution was as diplomatic as it was musically unorthodox. Instead of ignoring the problem at court, where his own needs were well attended to, or reading the riot act to the musicians under his command, he composed a symphony that addressed the problem subtly but eloquently. At the first performance of the “Farewell” symphony, the prince immediately understood the purpose of the musicians’ walkout. The next day he gave orders that they be reunited with their families.

On either side of the social divide, nothing could more aptly encapsulate the spirit of Enlightenment. By 1809, when the Esterházy estates came under threat from a second Napoleonic invasion, that spirit had been extinguished. Haydn lay on his deathbed and the Romantic era had dawned.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief classical music critic
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