No Meat and Potatoes – Definitely No Chocolate

James Fletcher

  • Haydn Studies edited by Dean Sutcliffe
    Cambridge, 343 pp, £47.50, October 1998, ISBN 0 521 58052 8

Writing in Haydn Studies of the composer’s reception during the 19th century, Leon Botstein tells an interesting story about Felix Weingartner, Mahler’s successor as conductor at the Imperial Opera in Vienna. In 1909, he was asked to provide something that could be part of the centenary celebrations of Haydn’s death. ‘Weingartner expressed his dismay that the Festival Committee failed to grasp the brilliance of his idea that a new production of the Magic Flute would be the ideal tribute. Not accepting the idea that Haydn was “everything but a dramatic composer”, they insisted on a Haydn opera.’ Could the same situation have arisen with any other composer?

If the ten essays collected in Haydn Studies have a common thread, it is a concern with the discrepancy between what people think of Haydn and the music he actually wrote. Eight are by musicologists, the last two by composers. With the exception of Robin Holloway’s remarkable concluding piece about the various possible ways of listening to Haydn, the contributions are uncompromisingly academic. It is considerably less successful as a musicologist’s bedside book than the earlier American volume of the same title (1981), which is full of entertaining exchanges and fragments of recondite erudition: where else to find information about Haydn’s pupils Josef Smrcek and Frantisek Tomes, or about the specialised diet of the sheep that yielded the best 18th-century catgut?

The oddest contribution – though also one of the most interesting – is Michael Spitzer’s analysis of the first movement of Symphony No. 46 in B and other pieces in terms of a theory of melody proposed by Eugene Narmour. The idea is that we perceive a minimal melodic event (the movement between two notes) according to its relation to the preceding event: same or different interval, same or opposite direction. (Repeated notes are allowed for as a special case.) A repeated event is a ‘process’: hence ‘intervallic process’ is ‘same interval, opposite direction’ and ‘registral process’ is ‘same direction, different interval’. An opposed event is a ‘reversal’, hence ‘intervallic reversal’ and ‘registral reversal’. ‘Full process’ is ‘same interval, same direction’, and ‘full reversal’ ‘different interval, opposite direction’.

This is less simple-minded than it might appear. In 1975 Denys Parsons published a book designed to enable people with no knowledge of notation to identify themes from classical music. He notated them by means of a dot (the initial note) followed by U (up), D (down) and R (repeated note). Thus the slow movement of Haydn’s ‘Surprise’ Symphony goes: ·R U R U R D U R D R D R D U R U R U R D U R D R U D. He then arranged the sequences in alphabetical order, and discovered that it was possible to list more than 15,000 tunes with negligible duplication. It is remarkable that practically every tune has a unique fingerprint that can be found in this simple way. Narmour’s system is not intended as a classifying device, but as an analytical method appropriate to his belief that ‘musical meaning arises from the interaction of two processes: pattern continuation (or completion) and pattern deflection.’

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