A Canadian uncovers the real Haydn

‘Papa’s’ operas are rife with subtext about Hapsburg-era Vienna and anti-Semitism
David Laster

A Canadian uncovers the real HaydnUniversity of Toronto music historian Caryl Clark shocked her audience into silence when she spoke at a conference devoted to the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn in Budapest this past May. “The reaction among my older colleagues was, ‘Oh my God, we don’t talk about such things here.’ And the younger people couldn’t picture the stereotypes I referred to.”

Haydn—inventor of the symphony and string quartet—was perhaps the most influential composer in history. Yet many classical music critics argue that he doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Mozart, whom he mentored, and Beethoven, his student—because he lacked their “inner seriousness.” Indeed, Haydn has long been characterized as a pious, naive, conservative, untroubled servant of his noble patrons, given to musical jokes and witticisms.

But it turns out that Haydn wasn’t such a goody two shoes after all. In her new book, Haydn’s Jews: Representation and Reception on the Operatic Stage, Clark offers a new reading of the composer that has academics wondering whether they’ve been wrong about “Papa” all along.

Take Haydn’s 1768 comic opera Lo speziale (The Apothecary), generally considered an innocuous little farce about the undoing of a lecherous old geezer. According to Clark there is a serious message hiding underneath the surface, which “exposes troubling themes” about anti-Semitism. In the music and stage directions, Haydn caricatures his title character, Sempronio, with what his audience would clearly have recognized as Jewish stereotypes and allegories. Sempronio is greedy and money-grubbing, incestuously lusts after his young female ward, walks with an uneven, hobbled gait and sings in a ludicrously high male vocal tessitura. There are hints in the music, too: the “penetrating nasal quality of the solo oboe,” Clark notes, imitates synagogue recitation.

(The controversial German composer Richard Wagner surely took note of these tropes—Sempronio was a prototype for his Jewish parodies. The shuffling, stammering dwarf Mime in Siegfried, and the foolish, pedantic, sexually frustrated Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger, are direct descendents of the Lo speziale protagonist, and Die Meistersinger, it should be noted, was Hitler’s favourite opera.)

So was Haydn an anti-Semite? Clark says no: while “Haydn understood how to encode Jewishness in music,” she writes, he “is neither vindictive toward Jews nor explicitly critical of their behaviour . . . Haydn is never known to have uttered any hateful remarks against Jews.” Indeed, as Clark reveals, Haydn bent over backwards to be considerate to them.

As an example, Clark points to Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo, a mass that Haydn composed in 1775 for Vienna’s church of the Brothers Hospitallers, whose founder, St. John of God, was a converso, or Jewish convert, during the Spanish Inquisition. This quirky work omits a crucial line of the Creed: “Et unum Dominum Jesum Christum, Filium Dei” (“And in one Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of God”). According to received music-history wisdom, Haydn simply forgot to include it, but Clark thinks otherwise: the textual omission, she writes, was calculated to appeal to the recipients of this particular mass, who are in the process of joining the Church and who are not yet capable of appreciating the Credo, a profession of faith at baptism. “By rendering the Creed in stages, and removing the line that posed the greatest potential stumbling block for Jewish converts, Haydn may have been acknowledging the difficulty of professing the full faith, and by making a little concession, may have been trying to make the journey toward conversion more manageable and palatable.”

How did Caryl Clark, a self-professed “goy,” end up authoring a book about Haydn and the Jews? She had a “eureka” moment in 2000 while visiting the town of Eisenstadt, the seat of Haydn’s long-time employer, the princely Esterházy family. Noticing that the old Jewish ghetto and synagogue nestled in the shadows of the Esterházy palace, she surmised that Haydn would have passed by them every day while going about his business. “As a self-motivated, curious, and musically astute young man with a keen eye and ear for detail, the chances are that he saw, heard and absorbed much.” And the proof, it turns out, is neatly documented in the great composer’s work.