March 31, 2005

Happy Birthday, Poppa!


Today is (sort of) the birthday of one of my absolute favorite composers, Franz Joseph Haydn, born (almost) this day in 1732. Perhaps I should let him explain. Haydn said to his first biographer Dies:

I was born on 1 April, and that is the date found in my father's Hausbuch - but my brother Michael maintains I was born on the 31st of March because he doesn't want it said that I came into the world as an April fool.

There you have in a nutshell, I think, Haydn’s personality – good-natured, humorous and with just a touch of self-mockery. This is part of the reason for his immense popularity in his own time. The other part is the accessibility of his music on so many levels. Just about anybody with the slightest shred of musical ability could (and still can) get something out of it (Haydn always sought to pitch his music to the level of sophistication he thought his audience could handle). And yet such towering giants as Mozart and Beethoven – whose native geniuses were probably a bit superior to Haydn’s - also worshipped the man.

I play a lot of Haydn’s keyboard music myself and it reflects these twin strains as well. While it can on occasion be serious (as in his E minor sonata No. 53, for example), most of it is lively, chatty and pleasant, in addition to being well-crafted. Sometimes it is funny: The final movement of his 1794/95 C major sonata (No. 60, I think) contains a running joke where the music takes a wrong turn into a horrible dischord, tries the same dischord again an octave higher, hesitates for a second and then goes back to the beginning of the passage to start over. At the same time, that accessibility I mentioned is also present: Most of Haydn’s keyboard pieces are not technically demanding, unlike Mozart’s (which requires effortless perfection) and Beethoven’s (which demands a lot of pounding). Instead, the amateur hack (I refer to myself) can sit down and actually enjoy making the music instead of fretting about technique.

At the moment, I am listening to Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, one of six so-called “Paris” symphonies he composed in 1785-86. This one is known as “La Reine de France” because it was a favorite of Marie Antoinette. Allow me to transcribe a story from the liner notes of my CD (a Sony Classical performance featuring Tafelmusik under the direction of Bruno Weil) regarding this piece and Antoinette’s later pre-murder imprisonment in the Temple:

Another of those who came to the Temple was Lepitre, a young professor who became a member of the provincial Commune on December 2nd, 1792. With him on duty one morning was Toulan, a man who did all he could to make life more bearable for the royal family. There was a harpsichord by the door of Madame Elizabeth’s room, which he tried to play, only to find it was badly out of tune. Marie Antoinette came up to him: “I should be glad to use that instrument, so I can continue my daughter’s lessons, but it is impossible in its present condition, and I have not succeeded in getting it tuned.” Lepitre and Toulan sent out a message, and the harpsichord was tuned the same evening.

As we were looking through the small collection of music that day, upon the instrument we found a piece called La Reine de France. “Times have changed,” said Her Majesty, and we could not restrain our tears.”

Poor woman. (But that’s a topic for a different day.)

There are lots and lots of good sources on Haydn. Probably the best biography I've read is Haydn – His Life and Music, by H.C. Robbins-Landon and David Wyn Jones. For detailed technical discussions of his music (and that of Mozart and Beethoven, for that matter), Charles Rosen is an excellent author. And here is a nifty all-Haydn website that I recently discovered.

As I say, Happy Birthday, Poppa!

UPDATE: Waterfall at A Sort of Notebook (who has named her piano, something I have not done) has a nice tribute that dwells on that critical point in Haydn's career when it suddenly dawned on him what being a castrato actually entailed. (He didn't do it.) Also, Michael Blowhard has some excellent thoughts on Haydn's character and provides a tantalizing snippet of an essay by Terry Teachout that explores why Haydn has not been as appreciated down the years as he deserves. (Alas, subscription required to view the entire essay.)

Yips! to Lynn S. for putting me on to these pieces.

Posted by Robert at March 31, 2005 11:40 AM

I love the E minor sonata, which I used to play a loooong time ago but never picked back up when I started back fumbling around on the piano in recent years. Now I think I'll stop by the music store today and grab the sonatas. Thanks for the inspiration!

Posted by: Chan S. at April 1, 2005 08:35 AM
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