Brother Weinman has an article in this week’s print edition about the mighty river that is Joseph Haydn, to help mark the 200th anniversary of the great man’s death. I am here to sing Haydn’s praises too. So now’s as good a time as any to announce the arrival of a new Maclean’s consensus, spreading consistently across the work of several writers, to go along with the other tenets of our house canon: (a) Conrad Black: Dreyfus without the confusing anti-Semitism elements; (b) Human-rights commissions: Boo! (c) University rankings: indispensable; (d) Elizabeth May: shaky at best. And now we announce Maclean’s Consensus (e): Haydn: Our man!
We took a vote and we’re standing by this one. Jaime has written about his fondness for Haydn before on his blog. Even Colleague Coyne once conscripted Haydn into an argument against state support for the arts, which caused the entire Esterhazy family to spring from their graves and shout “Chutzpah!” in unison. Why is Haydn so beloved by three geeky columnists and, I’m told, by other people too? The answer to that can go as deep as you want to go. I am currently fighting my way with my iPod and a machete through Charles Rosen’s classic The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, which routinely strains my high-school command of music theory to the breaking point in explaining the breakthroughs in refinement, drama and logic achieved by the three composers in the title. Rosen demonstrates exhaustively that the three stand in a class of their own; that they were celebrated as such in their own time and regarded one another as peers; that their music represents a real breakthrough and didn’t last, in the details of its construction, much past Beethoven’s death; and that Haydn was the progenitor. He took a bunch of ideas floating around late-18th-century Europe and wove them into a tight, flexible, coherent, logical and beautiful vocabulary. Of course he was followed very quickly by the young genius Mozart.
“Briefly and, indeed, over-simply, during (the years 1755-1775) a composer had to choose between dramatic surprise and formal perfection, between expressivity and elegance: he could rarely have both at once,” Rosen writes. “Not until Haydn and Mozart, separately and together, created a style in which a dramatic effect seemed at once surprising and logically motivated, in which the expressive and the elegant could join hands, did the classical style come into being.”
The classical style, then, is one in which nothing just happens: even in Mozart’s music, which can seem facile and tuneful, or Beethoven’s, which can seem wild and impetuous, there’s a constant and rigorous logic: everything, as we used to say in jazz, resolves. That’s why classical music can sound staid in relation to the flights of romantic music and all that followed. But that’s also why it’s so satifsying. For two centuries afterward, composers set about breaking rules. Haydn and his peers preferred to understand the rules. There’s a modesty about that stance, and modesty is a word that keeps fitting when it comes to Haydn. (He told producers not to bother staging his operas because Mozart’s, written later by a more theatrical soul, were better.)
Second point. Haydn can be — in my case in recent years, is — the greatest inspiration for any of us who need to do something a lot and keep it fresh. Dude wrote 104 symphonies and they were all killer, no filler. When he started, the symphony as a form was an elaborate but unremarkable concert overture. When he stopped it was ready for Beethoven. Like those other very different champions of longevity and prolificacy, Bach and Duke Ellington, Haydn kept at it. It’s an underrated virtue, a working-class virtue. Of course the point of his music isn’t only that there’s so much of it, but to really appreciate its variety I think you need to hear a lot of it. I’ve confected a short iMix of personal Haydn favourites and I’ll write about my reasons for choosing this selection on Friday, but seven pieces can’t begin to tell the whole tale. There’s a world of variety in his music. A symphony is (usually) four movements — fast slow cute fast — but Haydn worked worlds of possibility into his endless iterations of that template. Suddenly a movement turns into a cello solo, or a flute fantasia, or the low strings are taking the leads. Or a horn choir. The rhythm smoothes out or becomes drum-driven and carnal. The little jokes — Symphony 98 has three false endings before a keyboard, hitherto silent and played on the first night by Haydn himself, joins the band for what Basie would have called the “shout chorus.” Symphony 45 ends with the band walking offstage in twos and threes, to gently protest a summer of overwork. (Glenn Gould recorded six late Haydn sonatas near the end of his life; pianist and composer are a fine match because Gould can deliver Haydn’s abundant humour with the requisite deadpan.)
Finally, it’s all so beautiful. Jaime’s piece deals with the apparently widespread belief that Haydn was a bit stuffy and proper and that his music can serve as elegant filler between the serious pieces. I’ve just never heard that. Well, actually I’ve never been fond of his trumpet concerto, but he was constrained because he underestimated what a chromatic trumpet could accomplish. Much more often Haydn will steal your heart. In Paris we heard the Bavarian State Radio Orchestra under Mariss Jansons play Bruckner’s 7th Symphony and Haydn’s 104th. They were written 90 years apart, Bruckner was a monumentalist who wrote sprawling aural cathedrals for huge orchestras, and it was clear which of the two works would have more mass and volume. But it was the Haydn that held our attention while the later composer with the longer work sounded like so much huffing and puffing. And it was the slow second movement, with its peek-a-boo string melody and its pauses that seem to suspend the beat, that I still remember tonight, more than a year later. Haydn, Jansons and this wonderful orchestra seemed to suspend time, to stretch out the anticipation and deepen the reward. Music has had its share of rebels, madmen, loons and visionaries, and many remain a joy to hear to this day. But there is room in it too for a modest and diligent craftsman who dressed up to write, met his deadlines and changed history.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.