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.’

Armed with this tool, and with several refinements I haven’t mentioned, Spitzer approaches the opening of his chosen symphony, which, as he points out, sounds like an ending. Specifically, it consists of a falling minor sixth followed by a rising semitone, a particularly strong ‘reversal’, which commonly gives a sense of closure or ‘end-of-phrase’. Spitzer provides six examples of this, including four from Lohengrin, and goes on to examine the ways in which, used as an opening phrase, it confounds our expectations and then in turn raises expectations of its own, which Haydn exploits throughout the movement. The interest, for a musician as opposed to a musical psychologist, is to see whether Spitzer will actually come up with anything that wouldn’t have been noticed by, say, Donald Tovey. I think he does, even if it only turns out to be a new way of thinking about an old enigma.

The agenda, not only in this essay but in half the contributions to the book, is a wish to rehabilitate Haydn’s lesser known works, particularly those in the so-called galant style and in media where he is felt to have fallen short of his best, especially the operas and the piano trios. It has become a cliché of Haydn commentary to note that over large parts of his career he composed two different sorts of music, according to the players and audience for whom it was intended. The distinction is usually articulated in terms of Kenner and Liebhaber, sometimes translated as ‘connoisseurs’ and ‘amateurs’. Kenner were strongly committed to music: they were the people who played or enjoyed (and, particularly, who commissioned) Haydn’s string quartets, say, and who expected and wanted a technically and intellectually demanding sort of music. Baron van Swieten (the librettist of Haydn’s Creation) is a typical example: though not himself a distinguished musician, he was largely responsible for introducing the Viennese public to the music of Handel and J.S. Bach, and for a time held salons every Sunday (which Mozart attended) dedicated to the performance of Bach’s works, because he was fascinated by counterpoint.

Liebhaber took a more ‘recreational’ view: they might get together to play a piano trio, or enjoy hearing a cassation in the evening, but their attitude was much more casual, and they wanted attractive but conventional and uncomplicated music. In Haydn’s output, the string quartets, the Masses and some (but not all) of the symphonies are for Kenner; the piano trios, the cassations, the Scottish songs and some (but by no means all) of the piano sonatas are for Liebhaber. Of course, the distinction is not rigid (the most obviously amphibious work is the Trumpet Concerto) but in general the works which have attracted the most vigorous advocacy in this book would traditionally have been regarded as being for Liebhaber.

James Webster, writing here about the immediately post-Sturm und Drang symphonies, quotes Robbins Landon: in 1774-75 ‘we can see how the Sturm und Drang evaporates … It is as if Haydn had drawn a curtain over the passionate daring of the past decade … Haydn’s speciality was rapidly becoming these catchy … double variation movements … in the new style, which carefully eschewed any deeper emotions.’ Webster adds: ‘even the sober, ostensibly objective Larsen asserts that “in perhaps no other period of his maturity are there so many works that seem to lack the distinctive stamp of Haydn’s personality.”’ Both Landon and Larsen are tacitly invoking the notion of a ‘two-tier’ output. Webster takes exception to their dismissive tone. But he successfully defends Haydn only against the letter of the criticisms, not against the spirit in which they were made. True enough, the post-Sturm und Drang symphonies aren’t rubbish, but Landon never said this; merely that ‘the quality of the symphonies declines.’

A similar objection applies to W. Dean Sutcliffe’s chapter on the piano trios. He cites Tovey’s rash remark to the effect that ‘for the violoncello independent bars are so rare that there are hardly a dozen distributed through the whole 31 extant trios’; and continues, ‘this assertion … was only too open to arithmetical correction, and one Arthur T. Froggatt, in a letter to the Musical Times a few months later, attempted a more accurate count: “In the 31 published trios there are 744 bars in which the cello part differs from the pianoforte bass – an average of 24 bars to a trio.”’

But neither this, nor Sutcliffe’s argument that maybe the cello isn’t doubling the piano at all (the piano is doubling the cello) answers the entirely reasonable spirit of Tovey’s criticism. The piano trios can and should be defended, but not by trying to redefine what is meant by ‘good’ chamber music: one has to accept that whatever Haydn’s skill in adding violin and cello obbligatos to a piano ‘backbone’, the trios lack the thrilling interplay between instruments found in nearly all the string quartets – which is what is meant by ‘good’ chamber music. It would be exciting to discover a whole set of unfamiliar masterpieces in Haydn’s work, but the two-layer ‘Haydn trope’ has so far proved resistant to deconstruction.

In Haydn, Chronicle and Works, Landon remarks on ‘the extraordinary popularity that Haydn’s Organ Concertos have enjoyed for nearly a quarter of a century. It is inexplicable that these frail works should be vastly more popular than the great string quartets, and so on; and this is especially true in France, for reasons that we cannot fathom.’ Sutcliffe quotes Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who described Haydn as the composer whom ‘concert promoters have always regarded as box office death, even if true musicians have a passion for him almost beyond any other composer.’ Botstein notes:

In contemporary concert life, we notice many versions of annual ‘Mostly Mozart’ festivals and weekend-long ‘Beethoven Experiences’. Two popular Hollywood films have been made on the lives of Mozart and Beethoven. There is no ‘Mostly Haydn’ series being planned and no film under contract. Of the massive output of music Haydn left behind, only a small fraction appears regularly on modern concert programmes. When a Haydn work is programmed, it is rarely as the main event.

Is one to conclude that Wheatcroft’s ‘true musicians’ are invisible? Or under house arrest? Or unable to afford concerts because they’ve spent all their money on CDs of the Organ Concertos?

Perhaps a clue is to be found in the introduction to Spitzer’s piece, where he’s talking about the ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl:

Curiously, Nettl’s ‘Mozart-Beethoven’ opposition turns on the subject of food. Referring to a popular Viennese cookbook of the 1930s, Alice Urbach’s extremely comprehensive So kocht man in Wien! (1936), Nettl discovers that Mozart’s name appears with some prominence in recipes for ‘Mozartkrapfen’ (balls made of chocolate, marzipan and pistachios). Mozart is a sweet composer; Beethoven, whose name appears in no known recipe, would clearly be a ‘meat and potatoes’ man.

Part of the reason Haydn induces acute nervousness in concert promoters is that he is not ‘relishable’ in this chocolatey way. One of the most striking differences between him and Mozart is Haydn’s lack of ‘good bits’ – the kind of romantically juicy passages you consciously wait for if you know the piece. What passage in Haydn could possibly have been used by the producers of Elvira Madigan, where they in fact used part of the slow movement of Mozart’s C major Piano Concerto? Mozart abounds in them: the spicy bit in the Clarinet Quintet’s slow movement and the openings of the 40th Symphony and the ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, to name only three. Robin Holloway, too, invokes chocolate: ‘Strauss’s feeling for the epoch was confined to a periwigged and chocoladed Mozart – Haydn’s lack equally of sensuality and dinkiness had no appeal.’ Haydn’s best music seems at first hearing to rely no less on ‘readily identifiable conventional units’ than Mozart’s, but if you idly try to hum along you realise it’s all subtly out to lunch.

It’s this unpredictability, at every level from the smallest phrase to the narrative of entire works, that ‘true musicians’ relish in Haydn. You can hear the difference if you listen to the finale of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony and then to the first movement of Haydn’s C major Quartet, Op. 74, No. 1. The quartet opens with what sounds as if it’s going to be the same tune as the symphony; but where Mozart’s tune sounds inevitable and seamless, Haydn’s is knotted and lumpy. That makes it sound merely incompetent; but it isn’t, because the better Haydn gets, the more he sounds like this – asymmetrical, muscular and fizzing with compressed animal energy. Several contemporaries described him, even in old age, as a brilliant conductor – a much rarer gift in composers than instrumental virtuosity – and you can imagine him at work with a quartet, cheerfully organising the phrasing and dynamics to get the maximum impact from all the irregularities. Mozart sounds leguminous by comparison.

George Edwards’s essay is concerned with a particular irregularity found in Haydn’s sonata-form movements: ‘if some composers take a vacation during the recapitulation, Haydn is not among them,’ he says, and shows that Haydn had a bewildering variety of strategies for pleasurably wrong-footing the audience at the very moment when they think they’re back on safe ground. Significantly, Edwards generally prefers to describe Haydn’s inventiveness as ‘exhilarating’, ‘kaleidoscopic’ or ‘bizarre’, rather than in terms of ‘humour’. For Haydn needs to be liberated from his reputation as a ‘humorous’ composer.

In a piece on Morecambe and Wise in the LRB (15 April 1999, David Goldie quoted a story about André Previn appearing as a celebrity guest on the show. Beforehand Morecambe told Previn: ‘We must never think this is funny, on camera; never think it’s funny: we’re doing it for straight.’ Haydn would have approved of this. He insisted, for instance, that he put the famous explosion into the ‘Surprise’ Symphony for purely artistic reasons. In this case one of the members of the original orchestra ratted on him (apparently at the first rehearsal he had said: ‘This will make the ladies scream’) but I think he was right in principle. The music is indeed rich in humour but it’s unfortunate that a few works with obviously ‘practical’ jokes (the ‘Surprise’ Symphony’s bang, the farcical ‘tuning up’ in the last movement of Symphony No. 60 ‘Il Distratto’, the ‘abortive closures’ of the ‘Joke’ Quartet) have encouraged audiences to hear passages which are in fact ‘exhilarating, kaleidoscopic and bizarre’ as if they were merely stunts, and, much worse, has encouraged performers to play them like that. The finale of the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, Op. 76, No. 4 in B flat, is a case in point: it has an innocently hypermetrical eight-bar melody with a strange accented ‘hiccough’ in the third and seventh bars. There is a great temptation to play this ‘for laughs’; but if you do, it kills the movement dead, partly because the ‘hiccough’ disappears about halfway through the movement (so the whole of the rest of it then sounds pointless) and even more because it deadens the energy of the music.

I doubt if it overstates the case to say that Haydn intended some of his music to sound ‘bizarre’, or at least outlandish. But in the age of Ligeti and Berio it requires a certain effort to hear Haydn as bizarre: ‘humorous’ is much easier, just as it is also easy to think of him as a sort of rustic Mozart, inspired though perhaps a little clumsy. But the effort is worth making.