More than just a poor man’s Mozart

On the 200th anniversary of his death, we should celebrate Haydn for the genius he was

More than just a poor man’s Mozart

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of the most important composer of the late 18th century. No, it’s not Mozart. Franz Joseph Haydn was known as the “father of the symphony,” and he’s a favourite of professional musicians for his experiments with harmony and structure. But unlike the massive celebrations for every Mozart anniversary, Haydn’s bicentennial is a low-energy event: there will be a few recordings, orchestras and string quartets will program a handful of his 104 symphonies and 83 quartets. Otherwise, not much. There won’t be movies about his long but uneventful life, and no one will write about the “Haydn effect” on babies. Haydn was a big influence on Beethoven, who studied with him, and Mozart, who said that he “has the secret of making me smile and touching me to the bottom of my soul.” But to classical audiences, he can seem like the guy who sounds kind of like Mozart, but isn’t. And his most famous tune, from one of his string quartets, was ruined when the Germans put words to it and called it Deutschland Über Alles. Haydn was great, but he hasn’t been lucky.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA : Paul Wells on Haydn

Jeanne Lamon, director of Tafelmusik, the profitable Toronto period-instrument orchestra that has offered many performances and recordings of Haydn (and will perform Haydn’s great choral work The Creation with the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir for the 2009 anniversary celebrations), says that audiences need to understand that Haydn’s music can’t be approached as if it’s Mozart. Whereas Mozart is, in Lamon’s words,“overtly passionate and sexual in his music,” Haydn is more genial and more intellectual. “He’s so positive,” says Lamon, “so full of humour and wit, and such a love of life.” Unlike other composers who fill their works with easy-to-process melodies, Haydn’s specialty was in starting with seemingly ordinary musical ideas and developing them in unexpected ways. His works are full of sudden shifts in mood, unusual harmonic tricks, and even deliberate jokes on the audience. (One symphony asks the strings to tune up in the middle of the piece; the slow movement of symphony No. 93 requires the bassoon to sound like a person breaking wind; one of his string quartets ends in the middle of a musical phrase.) You have to listen closely to hear these things, and without close listening, a Haydn symphony can sound like it consists of a couple of not-so-great tunes repeated over and over.

But Haydn’s problem may not be so much with the audience as with the way his music is usually interpreted. While Haydn is popular with conductors and instrumentalists, many of them take a slightly condescending attitude to his work; his pieces often wind up as filler on concert programs, the warm-up for bigger or more obviously exciting composers. The great British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was the most famous interpreter of Haydn in the early 20th century, but he insisted on rewriting the scores to remove or downplay Haydn’s most unusual or modern-sounding effects. If Haydn is played that way, his humour can sound superficial or silly. To make Haydn work, the performer needs to emphasize the way his music see-saws between intellectualism and crudeness; one moment he’ll write a very dark, complex passage, and the next moment he’ll have the instruments imitating animals or even blowing a raspberry. “He’s a country boy,” says Lamon, “and you can feel the earth and the water in his writing.” But if Haydn’s music is smoothed out and prettified, you don’t feel that; all you get are the 18th-century clichés in between.

Fortunately there are many performers today who raise awareness of Haydn’s weird and rough side. In conductor Rene Jacobs’ recent recording of Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons (Harmonia Mundi), the pounding drums in a storm sequence make it sound scarier than any storm music that Beethoven ever came up with, and you can hear the brass mimicking barking dogs during a hunting chorus. In his ongoing series of Haydn symphony recordings on the Hanssler label, German conductor Thomas Fey uses extreme speeds and contrasts in volume to convey the surprisingly anguished mood of Haydn’s middle-period symphonies (known as his “Sturm Und Drang” period). The more Haydn is played this way, the more he sounds like the innovator he was—and the more audiences might come to appreciate him as something other than a poor man’s Mozart. “Haydn was loved in his time,” Lamon says, “much more than Mozart. Maybe they understood something that we’re not understanding.”

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