In Search of Haydn

March 24, 2012
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“Anybody can see just by looking at me that I’m a nice sort of fellow,” said Joseph Haydn. Indeed, one could tell simply from listening to the playful first bars of his Piano Sonata No. 56 in D major. Only a nice fellow could write that.

The impression of niceness is reinforced by every talking head in this latest addition to Phil Grabsky’s ongoing documentary series on the great composers. Having already gone in search of Mozart and Beethoven, Grabsky has chosen Haydn (1732-1809) as his latest object of veneration. It is a logical choice: Haydn was a mentor for the young Mozart, who called him “Papa”, and a teacher for Beethoven from 1792-94.

He may not have been a force of nature like Beethoven or a freakish genius like Mozart, but there is no denying that Haydn was one of the greatest composers of all time. The pianist, Richard Brautigam says Haydn wished to please and entertain, while Mozart and Beethoven wanted to impress. Another pianist, Emanuel Ax, makes an interesting point when he says that Haydn lacked the element of surprise we find in Mozart. He also lacked the rogueish Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist who gave Mozart’s operas their wit and forward thrust. Apart from that, it is hard to imagine a more complete musician.

Haydn virtually invented the string quartet and made the symphony the dominant musical form of the age. His concerto for trumpet remains the “treasure of the repertoire” in the words of one performer, and his cello concertos can’t be far behind.

While most composers struggled to get past nine symphonies, Haydn composed 106. Admittedly they were not as grand or complex as some of his successors’ works, and there was an element of recycling, but they were astonishingly inventive. He also managed 68 string quartets, 14 operas, 14 masses, volumes of chamber music, and the great oratorio, The Creation, which historian, Richard Wigmore describes as a “supreme monument to the spirit of the Enlightenment.”

Haydn was a one-man music factory, producing pieces almost on a daily basis to satisfy the whims of his employers, the Esterházys. From his sedentary position as Kapellmeister in the palace of Eisenstadt, and later the rural complex of Eszterháza, he became well-known all over Europe. By the time he made his first trip to London, in 1791, under the auspices of the entrepreneur, Johann Peter Salomon, Haydn was already a musical celebrity. He would dine with royalty and grow wealthy on the proceeds of his concerts.

Haydn’s biography was a rags to riches story. He was the son of a wheelwright and always retained the common touch. We learn that Haydn was courteous, eager to please, and popular with both his employers and his own musicians. After hob-nobbing with the aristocrats of England he quietly admitted: “I prefer people of my own status.” He would’ve made a good Aussie bloke.

This documentary is not exactly inspired. It is entirely conventional in style, relying on a mixture of interviews and musical excerpts, with Juliet Stevenson providing the narration. A lot of time is spent with the camera panning airly across the landscape, providing a pleasant, touristic view of Austria.

Grabsky may be getting a little complacent, as these films are made for a niche audience that would come along for the music alone. However, when we think of some of the late Ken Russell’s forays into the biographies of the great composers, we may be thankful for this comparatively staid fare. Grabsky was never going to give us Haydn in fishnets and a Nazi helmet.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 24, 2012

In Search of Hadyn, UK, Rated G, 103 minutes



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