If you were to name the greatest composers in the Western musical tradition, three or four names would come up uncontested.
Yes, you might have your favorites beyond these, and good arguments can be made, but by consensus, you would have to name Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven and …
Bach, because he is the source. He towers above everyone in his emotional power and technical brilliance. Different composers can fill the needs of various moods, but you can listen to Bach in any mood. He is universal.
Mozart, because no one ever had such fluency of expression or more immediate melody. Music seemed to grow from him like peaches from a tree.
Beethoven, because no one ever strove higher or struggled more painfully to find the exact note, the exact emotion, the exact nexus of human and transcendent.
You might nominate Richard Wagner, or Franz Schubert. Johannes Brahms or Claude-Achille Debussy. Stravinsky or Schoenberg. All good choices, in their way, but the name that comes up more than any other as worthy of the company of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven is Franz Joseph Haydn, yet he is so often overlooked. His name does not spring up with the alacrity of the Big Three, but is almost always mentioned: And yes, there is Haydn.
Why is he given such short shrift? He is one of the Big Four. He practically invented the symphony and the string quartet; at least gave them the form we have encountered them ever since. And the wealth of his invention is mind boggling. He wrote 104 symphonies (depending on how you count), with almost as many minuets and yet, not one of those minuets could be mistaken for any other. How can you create that many third movements and yet make each one emotionally, melodically and rhythmically distinct? And memorable.
His music has never left the repertoire, but is so often played as a warm-up piece to start a quartet recital, or tucked into a symphony program before the Big Piece after the intermission. We pay him lip service, but seldom really listen. Mostly, he is a pleasant bit of music before we have to wake up for the Mahler or Sibelius that will follow.
I believe the reason is that for many of the more popular composers, you don’t actually have to listen: You can let the music wash over you in emotional colors and flavors. You just float downstream with the tunes. (I don’t mean that if you do actively listen, you won’t find a logical argument, but that for most concertgoers, the musical argument is beside the point; Tchaikovsky swells your heart whether you recognize a sonata form or a polonaise).
But Haydn is music meant to be listened to actively, because what he does in his work is to give you a pattern of notes, and then take you on a journey of wit, through the permutations afforded by that pattern of notes. Your ability to follow all the clever things he does is the key to your understanding — and your pleasure. Yes, there are some good tunes, but they are the grist for his art, not the point of it.
Certainly, all good composers do this, but none to quite the degree you find with Haydn, or to quite the point. Through most of his career, he wasn’t writing for the common public, but for a sophisticated audience, who could follow his clever construction and deconstruction of the sonata form, or the variation form. In other words, they listened actively. I.e., they got the joke.
His boss through most of his time at the Esterhazy estate was Prince Nikolaus, an avid music lover and himself a performer on the baryton — a now obsolete instrument, a sort of combination cello and guitar. Haydn wrote 126 trios for his employer to play on that instrument.
Because the prince was musically knowledgable, his court followed suit, and it meant that Haydn could inject his music with many a musical in-joke his audience would enjoy. I use the word, “joke,” but that doesn’t mean they are meant to be overtly funny. No, the “joke” was some catch or punchline the audience was meant to pick up on, like an odd key change, or the turning upside-down of a them. Some of them are funny, but the point is the wit — the cleverness.
Wit is a word that meant something different, larger and more important in the 18th century than it does now. We tend to use the word as synonymous with “comedy.” We expect to laugh at wit. A witty saying, a witty remark.
But in the century of Haydn (and before, to some extent), wit was an entire class of thinking. It meant, as Sam Johnson expressed it, “a kind of discordia concors; a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike.” Or in his other formulation: “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.”
An easy example: his Symphony No. 60 in C, called “Il Distratto,” or the absent minded, or distracted. The first movement is a pile of jokes, from the very first notes: a pompous introductory fanfare that goes absolutely nowhere, followed by a spritely tune. In Haydn’s style, a first theme is usually followed by a second theme in a contrasting key and mood. But here, the second theme also goes nowhere; it consists of just one note and its ornaments, over and over, losing speed and energy until, as if the orchestra has forgotten where it is and what it is doing, suddenly wakes up and charges ahead with renewed energy. (Link here).
The conductor Kenneth Woods describes it as funny and modern. “Possibly the funniest and most modern symphony ever written”, going on to say that “Haydn uses most of the 20th-century ‘isms’ in this piece—surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest—he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.”
And at the very end, the orchestra stops, mid-phrase, and retunes the violins, before getting back to business. Yes, that is musical slapstick, but no one did it any better before PDQ Bach.
Or the finale of his Symphony No. 61, a sprightly prestissimo punctuated throughout by comic oboes playing the same two notes over and over again. Never changing; over and over. Da-dah. (Link here). Da-dah. (Click on the timing listed in the dooblydoo for the last movement).
Or the opening of final movement his quartet, Op. 76, no. 5, which places the kind of cadential chords used to punctuate the end of a movement instead at the very beginning. (Link here). And, of course, the movement ends with the same final chords.
My favorite is the finale of Symphony No. 70, which begins with a joke: Five repeated notes, quietly played, repeated several times, lulling you into a reverie, then, the same five notes blasted at full volume, waking you up. It does this again, and you figure, this is going to be one of Haydn’s great jests, then, just when you think you have it figured out, a great, furious and very serious fugue breaks out, occupying the center of the movement. Finally, back to the five-note joke, ending with a forte crash of those notes. Light-hearted, or deadly serious — you can’t tell. (Link here). That is yoking heterogeneous ideas together by violence.
But it all depends on an audience with some knowledgable expectation of what is likely to happen, so when it doesn’t, it comes as a delightful surprise. If you don’t have this background, it just becomes pleasant tunes.
The string quartets came with a knowledgable audience built in. They were not meant so much to be heard by an audience, as played by amateur musicians at home, and so the pleasure in them is as much in the playing as in the hearing. And the wit is there for the musicians to enjoy.
When Prince Nikolaus died, Haydn was freed to travel and make his reputation outside the estate. His music became more public, and instead of his symphonies being made up of cleverness piled on cleverness for the delectation of connoisseurs, he made them bigger, louder and gave each one at least one great joke for the middle-class audiences to remember, like the most memorable scene from a movie they could talk about over coffee after it was over. So, there is the tympani bang in the “Surprise” symphony, the Turkish military band in Symphony No. 100, the tick-tock in his “Clock” symphony and the righteous, bumptious fart joke made by the contrabassoon in the slow movement of his Symphony No. 93.
This is not to imply that Haydn was all punchlines and gags. There is great depth of emotion in many of his works. Take for one, the Seven Last Words of Christ, a liturgical piece, originally for orchestra and later turned into a piece for string quartet (the version most often heard today). It is eight great adagios, one after the other, meant to evoke an introduction and the last seven utterances of Jesus on the cross (Link here). It is Haydn’s genius to be able to write them so distinctly that you never have the feeling of one long slow piece, but rather seven great, separate meditations.
Or, the Piano Variations in F-minor, written over the death of his closest female friend, Maria Anna von Genzinger, one of his most sober compositions.
Sometimes Haydn’s wit is funny. Sometimes, it is profound. It is always surprising. It is meant to surprise.
And Haydn’s wit can be found in some of his most serious works. The opening of his oratorio, The Creation, depicts primordial chaos in a disjunctive series of phrases and fragments in disparate tonalities (Link here). And when, after that, the choir sings, very quietly, “And God said, let there be light, and there was …” all heavens break out in trumpets and kettle drums in a great C-major chord” “LIGHT!!!!” (Link here). It is a simple, even naive effect, but in live performance can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Wit can also render the sublime.
Of all the great composers, Haydn seems the most sane and even-tempered. Bach could bluster to city officials and get into fights. Mozart could squander his money. Beethoven had his heaven-storming bouts of choler. But Haydn found decent happiness on this earth and expressed in his music a satisfying sense of order and sanguinity, if occasionally a touch of mischief. His is the happiest music I know that is not also simple-minded.
I spend this much time on Haydn, because I love him. As I get older, I find that Haydn’s music has a staying power that sustains me. I can confidently turn to any piece and find deep and abiding pleasure.