In 1945, Arturo Toscanini told the music critic B.H. Haggin that he preferred Haydn to Mozart. “I will tell you frankly: sometimes I find Mozart boring,” he said to his astonished interviewer. “Not G-minor [the G Minor Symphony, K. 550]: that is great tragedy; and not concerti; but other music. Is always beautiful—but is always the same.”
Toscanini's offhand remark still has the power to startle, but in 1945 it must have come as nothing less than a bolt from the blue. Even now, few listeners would agree; six decades ago, such an opinion, especially when expressed by the world's most famous conductor, was counter-cultural to the point of heresy. For while Joseph Haydn's greatness was universally accepted in 1945, his music was popular only in the broadest sense of the word. Whether in Europe or the U.S., few conductors programmed even his best-known symphonies with any regularity, and only a handful of his works for smaller forces were known outside of a tiny circle of connoisseurs. And while a reasonably large number of his greatest pieces were recorded in the pre-LP era, virtually none of those recordings were by world-class artists.1
This state of affairs is all the more surprising in light of the fact that Haydn's music was better-known and more popular at the end of the 18th century than that of any other European composer, Bach and Mozart included. Indeed, as the Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon has suggested, he may well have been the most popular classical composer who has ever lived:
Haydn . . . achieved a total European popularity within his lifetime; by 1790 his music was adored even in the far corners of the Continent such as Seville, St. Petersburg, Pest (now Budapest), and Stockholm. . . . The music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler was adored by a segment of their contemporary audiences, but it was not until after the deaths of those six composers that their works achieved the kind of popularity that Haydn had enjoyed during his lifetime.
Haydn's fall from grace, as is so often the case in art, was as complete as his earlier acceptance, and to the extent that he was rehabilitated after World War II, it was less through live performances than through recordings. Starting in the 50's, a small but devoted group of performers began to record his major works in bulk, making it possible at last for lay listeners to study him in depth.2
Today, nearly all of Haydn's music is available on CD—but he remains a composer who is more admired than played, at least in the concert hall. No celebrated conductor or instrumentalist champions him; no stylishly written English-language narrative biography has yet been published.3
The absence of such a biography from the extensive Haydn literature helps to explain one reason for his comparative obscurity, which is that his life, though interesting, was not notably eventful. A child prodigy born into a large working-class family in 1732, he was taken into the Choir School of Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral at the age of eight, staying there until his voice changed. After that he made his living as a court musician, serving the Esterházys, a family of Austro-Hungarian nobles, from 1761 to his death in 1809. He knew Mozart and taught Beethoven, became famous when he took a leave of absence in 1791 to compose and conduct in England, and left behind a body of correspondence that does much to suggest the attractive, no-nonsense personality recalled by his friends and colleagues.
That Haydn was not nearly so psychologically complex a figure as, say, Mozart or Beethoven does not by itself explain why 19th-century listeners failed to warm to his music, but it does run parallel to the main reason, which is that he eschewed the emotional extremes that appealed so strongly to the romantics. Landon speaks of “Haydn's message of optimism, faith, and cheer,” which is perhaps another way of saying that he was a Kapellmeister by temperament, a workaday craftsman rather than a febrile enthusiast. The romantics turned their noses up at such folk—even when they happened to rank among the supreme geniuses of Western art.
What manner of music did this Kapellmeister of genius produce?
The first thing one notices about Haydn's music is that there is so much of it: 106 symphonies, dozens of string quartets, piano trios, and piano sonatas, a substantial body of large-scale choral music, and a great many operas. None of the latter has held the stage, but the well-listened music lover is likely to be familiar with a surprisingly large percentage of Haydn's works in other genres, though one paradoxical impediment to understanding him is the fact that the greater part of his music is astonishingly consistent in both quality and inspiration. Especially if most of them are of good quality, it is by definition far more difficult to get to know 106 symphonies than 41 (Mozart)—or nine (Beethoven).
Another problem is that Haydn's extreme originality is not always obvious to listeners who come to his music without a clear understanding of its historical context. The reason for this is that Haydn played a very large role in defining what is “normal” in classical music. He essentially invented the string-quartet medium, and though he was not the first composer of symphonies, he was more responsible than anyone else for developing and codifying the four-movement form that prevails to this day; in addition, he established the instrumental parameters of the now-familiar “classical” symphony orchestra.
Modest as always, Haydn himself attributed his originality to the circumstances in which he worked as a court musician:
My prince was satisfied with all my works; I received approval; as head of an orchestra, I could undertake experiments, could observe that which enhanced an effect and that which weakened it, thus improving, adding to it, taking away from it, taking risks. I was cut off from the world; there was no one in my vicinity to make me unsure of myself or to persecute me; and so I had to become original.
Whatever the reason, the musical style that evolved over the course of Haydn's employment by the Esterhézy family is noteworthy above all for its combination of unpredictability and equipoise: it is balanced without ever being dull. While one can hear this in everything he wrote, I find his last symphony, No. 104 in D Major (popularly known as the “London” Symphony), to be a veritable locus classicus of what makes Haydn Haydn. It begins unexpectedly with a broad, spacious introduction in D minor, at once grand and pensive, that leads no less unexpectedly to a first movement full of the vigor and bustle one might almost expect to hear in the overture to a comic opera. This public utterance leads to a tenderly poised major-key slow movement, followed in turn by one of the droll, heavy-footed minuets in which Haydn specialized; a high-spirited finale wraps the proceedings up with the kind of life-enhancing brilliance that no other classical composer has ever quite managed to equal.
For all the summary excellence of the “London” Symphony, it is important—essential, really—to keep in mind that one might just as well have chosen any of 30 or 40 other compositions to stand for the whole of Haydn's work. Other pieces emphasize other facets of his richly varied style. Some are wittier, some more emotionally penetrating, some more obviously “serious” in tone.4 Yet none could be mistaken for the work of anyone else. Has there ever been an artist, regardless of genre, who was at the same time so prolific and so unfailingly excellent, so varied and so immediately recognizable?
Haydn's loss of popularity has long fascinated me, not merely as a historical phenomenon but because I love his music so much. Whatever his ultimate standing in the ranks of the immortals, he is one of the half-dozen composers who has meant the most to me personally, ever since I first heard Toscanini's 1953 recording of the “Surprise” Symphony more than three decades ago.
More often than not, such intimate identification with a creative artist is an act of self-definition: in deciding what we love best, we acquire a clearer sense of who we are and what we want to become. Why, then, do I find Haydn's music so deeply satisfying—and what does this satisfaction tell me?
One of the things I like best about Haydn is also one of the things the romantics liked least: his sense of humor. This, however, goes far beyond the charmingly onomatopoeic “jokes” alluded to in the nicknames of the “Clock” and “Surprise” Symphonies, or such touches of whimsy as the bass-baritone blat of the bassoons in the slow movement of the D Major Symphony, Hob. I:93. Haydn was not merely a jokester but a full-fledged wit, one whose knack for frustrating our expectations makes the alert listener laugh out loud (in the process often arousing the wrath of concertgoers seated in the immediate vicinity). Time and again, for instance, he slips sideways into the “wrong” key, as in the first movement of the E Flat Major Piano Sonata, Hob. XVI:52, which bristles with what might be called musical puns—that is, short musical phrases whose repetition in different keys at unexpected points in a given piece alters their meaning to humorous effect.
Such touches of wit are merely the most obvious manifestations of the “liveliness of mind” that B.H. Haggin thought to be the aspect of Haydn's music to which Toscanini responded most enthusiastically. Nor is this liveliness in any way superficial. It goes to the heart of Haydn's style. As the English musicologist Donald Tovey explained:
[T]he language of Haydn and Mozart is not only essentially dramatic, but mainly comedic, and in their art-forms greatness is always expressed in terms of symmetry. Fortunately, Haydn habitually achieves his symmetry in a paradoxical way. From one moment to the next he is always unexpected, and it is only at the end that we discover how perfect are his proportions.
The most telling thing about this thoughtful explanation is Tovey's use of the word “comedic.” Just as Haydn the man was deeply religious, so was Haydn the artist a classicist of the highest seriousness—but one who did not assume his seriousness to be incompatible with humor. Like most (but not all!) of the greatest artists, he seems to have understood by instinct that “life is such an indissoluble mixture of heartbreak and absurdity that it might be more truly portrayed through the refracting lens of comedy.”5
I originally wrote those words a few weeks after 9/11, at a moment when artists in New York City and elsewhere were turning their backs on comedy and succumbing to the temptation of portentousness. At such times we are at the mercy of those who confuse seriousness with solemnity—a mistake Haydn never made.
Rereading the diaries of Alec Guinness during a recent illness, I ran across this passage:
For me there are two salves to apply when I feel spiritually bruised—listening to a Haydn symphony or sonata (his clear common sense always penetrates) and seeking out something in Montaigne's essays.
I was struck not merely by the phrase “clear common sense” but by Guinness's linking of the music of Haydn with the essays of Michel de Montaigne, that quintessential spokesman for the Age of Reason. Though the comparison is an astute one, and in many ways convincing, I feel a greater kinship between Haydn and his near-contemporary, Samuel Johnson. To be sure, Haydn is perhaps more like what the sometimes morose Johnson would have wished to be. But their essential similarities seem to me revealing in the highest degree—above all, in the way they blended wit, classical poise, and moral seriousness into an indissoluble whole.
I wonder if this combination of traits might give rise to the healing effect to which Guinness refers. Their “clear common sense,” of course, is rooted in a clear-eyed acceptance of things as they are, the stern minor-key “realism” of a work like the near-gnomic D Minor Quintet (“Fifths”), Hob. III:76, finding its responding echo in the bluntness of Johnson's pithiest utterances (“Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little enjoyed”). Yet this acceptance proves in the end liberating, for it allows both men to tell their truths with the extreme concentration that is the refining fire of wit, and not infrequently with the infusion of high spirits that turns penetrating wit into consoling humor.
It is no coincidence that Haydn and Johnson were both misunderstood and undervalued by the romantics, among whom “common sense” was a synonym for the prosily bourgeois conception of life on which they had haughtily turned their backs. Instead of Haydn, a man of modest piety who embraced the world as it was and is, they preferred Beethoven, a woolly-minded, proto-romantic pantheist who wanted everyone else to embrace the world as he longed for it to be. Not for them Johnson's bracingly tonic realism, much less Haydn's “optimism, faith, and cheer.” Small wonder, too, they found Johnson's faith as unsatisfactory as Haydn's jokes, both being manifestations of a temperament from which the expansive, humorless idealism of a Shelley or a Wagner could hardly have been further removed.
Those, on the other hand, who judge 19th-century idealism in the light of its bitter 20th-century fruits are more likely to have a greater appreciation of the virtues of classicism, not to mention the comic vision of life, of which Haydn is one of Western culture's matchless exemplars. Just as Boswell's Johnson told his harsh truths with a leavening touch of wryness, so did Haydn acknowledge the natural law of tonality with a sly wink. In the absence of that overarching order, his musical “jokes” would have had no meaning, in much the same way that the concept of “dissonance” is meaningless to the musical atonalist who refuses to distinguish between dissonance and consonance. Instead, they remind us of the eternal verities—and so lift up our hearts.
Everyone who knows anything about Haydn knows how he told a biographer (possibly apocryphally) that “since God has given me a cheerful heart, it will be pardoned me that I serve Him with a cheerful spirit.”6 It is a lovely, deservedly oft-quoted remark, but I find that another reputed statement of his sums up the essence of Haydn even more completely:
Often when contending with obstacles of every sort that interfered with my work . . . a secret feeling within me whispered: “There are but few contented and happy men here below; grief and care prevail everywhere; perhaps your labors may one day be the source from which the weary and worn, or the man burdened with affairs, may derive a few moments' rest and refreshment.” What a powerful motive for pressing onward!
What a blessing that he did.
1 One of the few great Haydn recordings of the 78 era was Toscanini's own 1929 performance with the New York Philharmonic of the D Major Symphony (“Clock”), Hob. I:101, available on an English CD that can be ordered directly from www.amazon.co.uk (Naxos Historical 8.110841). In addition, the pianist Alfred Cortot, the violinist Jacques Thibaud, and the cellist Pablo Casals recorded the G Major Trio (“Gypsy Rondo”), Hob. XV:25, in 1927 (Naxos Historical 8.110188, available in the U.S.), and Vladimir Horowitz, Toscanini's son-in-law, recorded the E Flat Major Piano Sonata, Hob. XVI:52, in 1932, in a performance available as part of HMV/Gramophone and RCA Victor Recordings, 1928-1947, an anthology of Horowitz's early recordings that can be ordered directly from www.andante.com (Andante Collection 2981/84, four CD's).
2 Among the most musically satisfying are Sir Thomas Beecham's recordings with the Royal Philharmonic of the “London” Symphonies, Nos. 93-104, currently available on a pair of budget-priced two-CD sets (EMI Classics 85513-2 and 85770-2); the Beaux Arts Trio's recordings of the complete piano trios (Philips 454 098-2, nine CD's); and Alfred Brendel's recordings of eleven major piano sonatas (Philips 416 643-2, four CD's). A more recent venture along similar lines is The Haydn Project, an anthology by the Emerson String Quartet of seven representative quartets composed at various points in Haydn's long career (DGG 471 327-2, two CD's).
3 The best single-volume book about Haydn is Haydn: His Life and Music (1988), a critical biography by H.C. Robbins Landon and David Wyn Jones that is largely accessible to non-musicians but contains too many extended excerpts from contemporary documents to make for easy reading.
4 A very different side of Haydn, for instance, can be heard in the incisive, almost astringent-sounding B Minor Piano Sonata, Hob. XVI:32 (recorded by Alfred Brendel).
5 “The Importance of Being Less Earnest,” collected in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale).
6 Of all the recordings of Haydn's oratorio The Creation (in connection with which this anecdote is most often repeated), it is Herbert von Karajan's 1966 performance with the Berlin Philharmonic that strikes the truest balance between good cheer and high seriousness (DGG 449 761-2, two CD's).