…Well, if that’s not exactly accurate, that’s what many have said about this amazingly prolific composer, nicknamed affectionately if perhaps slightly pratronisingly, ‘Papa’. Born in 1732 and dying 77 years later, Franz Joseph Haydn for 30 years of his life was employed by one master: Prince Paul Eisenstadt followed by his successor Prince Nikolaus, both passionate music lovers. The family owned the extravagant Palace of Esterhaza, and lived there for the best part of every year, Haydn serving them as vice-Kapellmeister. ‘There was no one near to confuse me’ he said, ‘so I was forced to become original’. Earlier he had lived in near poverty as a teacher. For a time he taught Beethoven, spoke highly of him, and was rewarded for his pains by Beethoven saying he had taught him nothing! Mozart was his friend for whom he had the highest regard, and their works have an affinity of structure and style.
Haydn took hold of the baroque tradition and made it into a more varied and even sophisticated medium, the often predictable symphonic works of such people as Corelli and Vivaldi gaining new elegance and expressiveness in his hands.
The term ‘sturm und drang’ (German for storm and stress) was used to describe the emotionalism and new harmonic flexibility of his symphonies (especially nos. 40-59) and the confidence of his enormously popular choral works such as ‘The Creation’ and ‘The Seasons’ , inspired by the English choral tradition established by Handel. His series of string quartets also reveal this new depth.
His 12 ‘London’ symphonies were partly written in Vienna and partly in London, which he visited at the invitation of the violinist and impresario Johann Salomon and where they were first performed to great acclaim. He wrote to please his employers and his growing public but in these, the last of his 104 symphonies, whilst the structure remains the same he challenges his listeners to think there way through his music rather than just be entertained by it.
In the notes that accompany my copy of the Colin Davies and Concertgebouw recordings, Wolf Konold says ‘The undervaluation of Haydn that has prevailed since the Romantic era…..still stands in the way of a correct approach to Haydn’s late symphonies, which are comparable in musical significance to those of Beethoven, Bruckner or Mahler.
(There is a huge website on Haydn which I haven’t explored – Google will get you there and you will find a picture of this kind and humorous man, enlivened by a right eye, which winks at you!)