Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Good Year for Haydn: Part 1

2009 has been a “Haydn Year,” marking the 200th Anniversary of his death, May 31st, 1809. Note that I didn't say “celebrating,” but musicians and music lovers will use any excuse to play a favorite composer's music or take a closer look at the life and times behind the music.

This post, a brief look at Haydn's life, is in preparation for the Harrisburg Symphony's performance of one of his greatest works, his oratorio “The Creation,” this weekend: Saturday November 21st at 8:00 and Sunday November 22nd at 3:00 at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Stuart Malina will conduct a performance with the orchestra and the combined choirs of the Susquehanna Chorale, the Wheatland Chorale of Lancaster, and the Messiah College Concert Choir. I'll be doing the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

(2009 is also the Bicentennial of the Birth of Felix Mendelssohn – you can read more about him here in other posts. Even though it will be March 2010, Stuart Malina will play Mendelssohn's Piano Concerto No. 1 with the orchestra as part of his 10th Anniversary Celebration here in Harrisburg.)

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When I lived in New York City, two elderly sisters who lived in my building heard that I was a doctor. So one evening, they saw me in the lobby and asked me what I would recommend for their various aches and pains.

“Oh,” I said, “I'm not that kind of doctor – my doctorate is in music. I'm a composer.”

That didn't seem to stop them. Finally, I just said “Take two Haydn symphonies and call me in the morning.”

We often think of him as “Papa Haydn,” the genial man in the powdered wig with the sense of humor who wrote all this delightful music that can put a smile on your face when you're feeling down and help relieve some of the day's stress.

Since he wrote 104 symphonies, some 80 string quartets and over 60 piano sonatas, not to mention piano trios, concertos, songs and operas, there's a lot of music to choose from. Granted, not all of it might be the best “musical aspirin” for what ails you, but chances are it might help you more than some of the greatest music in the repertoire.

A doctor once complained, when I was playing a Scriabin symphony on the radio, that he can't listen to the station any more which he used to play in his office's waiting room. Aside from being illegal, I think (you need a license to do that), I'm not sure I want to be taken through the development of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony, either, if the idea is trying to relax people's fears and lower their blood pressure. I recommended getting a CD player and, in addition to some standard favorites to create a useful playlist, a box of Haydn symphonies.

That attitude – Haydn as Mr. Nice Guy – may actually work against him when we think of Great Composers.

It doesn't take an Anniversary Year for people to play lots of music by Beethoven and Mozart. But even in this Haydn year, there aren't the kind of festivals and retrospectives going on one usually finds for the more highly regarded major composers. (Curiously, Mendelssohn too is being overlooked, though his music is certainly pleasant and accessible as well as, in many cases, both popular and great, but that's another issue.)

Considering the sheer amount of music Haydn created, it's no wonder there are no “Complete Works” festivals popping up across the land or, considering the dearth in the CD market, new recordings being made available this Haydn Year. In fact, if you want to find much about him beyond the token article or two, you need to think in terms of so-called catchy marketing phrases like “Haydn Go Seek!”

So here is my token article about Haydn.

Part of the difficulty in getting much more in depth, however, stems from the lack of detail available in his biography. Because he didn't write copious letters like the Mozarts and didn't leave behind other kinds of writings – articles like Schumann or Berlioz, for instance – or he wasn't surrounded by people who felt the urge to jot down every little item they noticed about their famous friend, there's really not a lot to go on and much of that is sometimes vague or contradictory, depending on whose memory is being involved or whether Haydn himself even thought accuracy was important.

Franz Josef Haydn was born in 1732 – a year before Bach wrote the Kyrie and Gloria of what would become his Mass in B Minor and three years before the birth of Bach's youngest son, Johann Christian Bach. Like Bach's family of 20-some children, Haydn was the second child (and oldest son) of twelve (Haydn's father had five more children to his second wife, but all of them died in infancy). He was born in the small Austrian town of Rohrau, a small town not far from Vienna or the modern borders of Hungary and Slovakia, which had a mix of Germans (Austrian), Slavs and Hungarians. No one is quite sure which ethnic group Haydn's family belonged to, but at one time or another, each group has laid claim to his genes. Nonetheless, he grew up in this polyglot culture and heard the folk and popular music of each. This might have become important to him later on, considering his use of such music in his own, except he left the town when he was 8 years old and spent the next 20 years or so in Vienna.

His father loved to play the guitar and sing. Haydn himself showed a real talent as a singer and it was judged he should go off to the Imperial Capital to study at the choir-school of St. Stephen's Cathedral, the most significant church in Vienna which also supplied singers for the Emperor's court. And so off he went. It had been his family's hope he would enter the priesthood but that was something he could still do after he finished his schooling.

That would place him in Vienna around 1740 – which, by the way, is still the “Baroque” Era. Vienna had been an exciting place at this time, not as well known as Leipzig (where Bach was located) or London (where Handel was located). Bach's death marked (somewhat arbitrarily) the end of the Baroque Era; Handel lived until 1759, dying the year Mozart turned 3. But by that time, the Baroque style was already considered old-fashioned, giving way to a newer, cleaner, leaner, melody-oriented style that relied less on the multi-layered texture of the Baroque and more on the concept of melody-plus-accompaniment. Two of the leading proponents of this new style happened to be sons of Johann Sebastian Bach – his 2nd son, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach (who was a major influence on Haydn) and youngest son, Johann Christian Bach, the “London Bach” (who was a major influence on Mozart).

Anyway, 1740 turned out not to be the best time to arrive in Vienna to experience a great musical world – the economy changed, the best known composers had just died and shortly the Emperor died as well, replaced by Empress Maria Theresa who spent much of her early reign fending off attacks from Prussia, mostly, trying to nibble away at her empire on the assumption that a woman on the throne was an opportunity.

As a result, much of her budget had to be redirected to the military which meant the imperial arts budget was slashed. Without a more stimulating environment, no new composers were gravitating toward Vienna and so there was now an artistic vacuum in Vienna.

At the choir school, they didn't teach the students much more than what they needed to become singers – very little theory, no composition, not much in the way of academics. When Haydn's voice broke, he was no longer kept on at the school and so at either 16 or 18, he left the school with very little hope of a career.

He played the violin and piano well enough to teach students but not to become a professional performer. He played the odd-job free-lance gigs as a violinist and spent what time he had studying books about composing by C.P.E. Bach and buying as much music as he could afford so he could study.

He also had the luck to be teaching the daughter of a well-to-do family who offered him free room and board in their apartment's spare room. Also in this building lived

(1) the dowager princess Esterházy whose two sons would later become Haydn's employers

(2) the court poet Metastasio who was perhaps the most famous opera librettist of the Baroque/Early Classical era – in addition to teaching the same daughter, he introduced Haydn to some important court musicians including

(3) Nicola Porpora, a singer and composer – Haydn became his accompanist and Porpora gave him some instruction in writing for the voice, in Italian and in general principles of composition.

Porpora also introduced him to some string players – another violinist, a violist and a cellist. At the time, standard Baroque ensembles were based on a melody instrument or two (often 2 violins or a violin and flute) plus a bass instrument to emphasize the bass-line of the harmony and a keyboard instrument to fill in the inner harmonies. This bass-line and keyboard role, called basso continuo, was considered one part though it took two players to perform it (a trio sonata actually took 4 people to play it). So there was no such thing as an actual “string quartet” of two violins, viola and cello.

So in order to have something to play with these three string-playing friends of his, he started writing “string quartets.”

Another story is that, rather than lugging a keyboard around for free-lance jobs, it was better to use the two violins and bass-line instrument (cello) and add the viola to help fill in the middle of the harmony. Standard chords consisted of three pitches – by judicious doubling, four instruments could then play all the harmony a keyboard would have filled in before.

Whether Haydn “invented” it or not, he had a great deal to do with turning it into a serious combination of instruments which became one of the leading genres of chamber music in the late-18th and 19th Centuries.

Haydn is also called the “Father of the Symphony” even though other composers wrote symphonies before he did. Again, he helped codify what the symphony could be – and by writing 104 of them during his life, he certainly created a body of work that set the standard for the form.

To be continued...

Dr. Dick

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