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The heights of Joseph Haydn
December 2017 / January 2018

Joseph Haydn:  No composer makes us smile more (©DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)


Arecent concert by the Doric string quartet at the Wigmore Hall stimulates the thought that one of the gifts reserved for age concerns Joseph Haydn: with maturity comes the recognition that he is a composer on an equal footing with Mozart.

For some reason, this is an insight which is hidden from the young. You will find a hundred student enthusiasts for Mozart’s minor key piano concertos or last three symphonies, say, for every one who champions even the most celebrated works of Haydn.

This difference in appreciation is not explained by the (in context) trivial biographical differences between them: the allure (if such it be) of Mozart’s precocious talent, infantile sense of humour, troubled relationships, intermittent penury and early death, as compared with Haydn’s long and presumptively uneventful life, much spent in liveried service to a great aristocratic family, a composer admired and affectionately beheld by all who knew him (except his wife). More germane perhaps is the daunting quantity of Haydn’s output: where does one start with more than 100 symphonies, 68 string quartets, dozens of operas, oratorios and masses, to say nothing of 126 baryton trios, whatever they might be?

Some might argue that there are also musical reasons why the inexperienced ear tends to prefer Mozart. His greater use of thematic contrast and variety within movements, the tendency towards longer melodic lines, a more chromatic approach to harmony appearing to imply a greater pathos and emotional depth — these are all liable to appeal to the romantic young. To state these perceptions as arguable is not to accept all of them as true: when he chooses, Haydn reaches emotional depths quite equal to Mozart’s; indeed there is nothing in Mozart’s oeuvre equal to the desperation of the closing pages of Haydn’s F minor variations for piano; one must await the last slow movements of Schubert for anything of comparable intensity. It is however true to say that Haydn’s characteristic mood is one of life-affirming warmth and high-spiritedness of soul, so long as one does not understand thereby some form of vapid or superficial cheerfulness. Perhaps more than any other classical composer, Haydn’s music calls to mind Schopenhauer’s reference to

. . . the inexpressible intimacy of music, which allows it to pass before us like a paradise that is so utterly familiar and yet eternally foreign, so entirely comprehensible and yet so inexplicable.

His faster movements are often energetic, sometimes confiding — curious, ingenious, unpredictable. There is no composer who makes one smile more, and smile for joy at the combination of unforced beauty and inventiveness. His rapt adagios are often ineffably profound, replete with unverbalisable meaning and seriousness. His 18th-century minuets become transformed before our eyes into timeless scherzos. The finales are firework displays of rhythmic vitality, learning lightly worn — or both. The Austrian-born British musicologist Hans Keller made the truthful point that

because [Haydn] matured so incomprehensibly late, he was the only composing genius who reached a prolonged, consistent, late climax during which he was, simultaneously, young, middle-aged, and old.
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