Friday, December 13, 2013

The Guardian on Bruckner and Haydn

Tom Service's fifty-part series on the symphony continues at The Guardian. Let me again say that I think these kinds of project, like the one he did last year on contemporary composers, are outstanding and we should be grateful that a mass-media outlet undertakes this kind of coverage.

The two most recent outings are on Bruckner, Symphony No. 8 and Haydn, Symphony No. 102. I just haven't had the time to look into the Bruckner (plus the mere thought of listening through it makes me tired!), but I would like to mention a couple of things about the Haydn, a current interest of mine. Oh, by the way, while Tom Service gets the story right, the Guardian's headline writer makes the error of assigning the nickname "The Miracle" to the Symphony No. 102 when it is traditionally given to the Symphony No. 96. Traditionally, though mistakenly! Confusing, isn't it? The Miracle was that during the performance of the Symphony No. 102, a chandelier fell from the ceiling into the seats. But the audience in that part of the hall had gotten up and crowded around the performers so that no-one was seriously hurt. For a long time this event was thought to have taken place during the performance of the Symphony No. 96, but it was actually while No. 102 was being played.

I'm not going to do an analysis of the symphony here, though I may do when I get back to doing my own traversal of the Haydn symphonies. But let's have a listen to No. 102, one of his enormously successful symphonies written for and premiered in London during Haydn's second visit. Here is the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, conducted by Adam Fischer:


I want to just qualify what I mean by "enormously successful". Haydn by this point was a very famous composer--the best-known in Europe. After many years of service with the Esterházy family where he was supported and in charge of chamber music, orchestral music and opera, he was released from daily service and allowed to pursue his career by traveling to London. He was admired in the highest reaches of society. On the list of subscribers to his concerts and publications were the most powerful people in Europe: emperors, kings, princes, ambassadors. There is no equivalent today! It would be like someone like Philip Glass giving a special concert of his music and it being attended by President Obama, Bill Gates, Queen Elizabeth, Pope Francis and a host of others.

The nobility of Europe at this time were very knowledgeable in music. Indeed, the Empress of Austria, Maria Teresa, even sang the soprano solos in Haydn's oratorios. Haydn was feted and admired by the most powerful and influential people wherever he went. And his music, in turn, celebrates the magnificence of the aristocracy at its best.

You might think that this gives us excellent reasons to hate Haydn and his music! But that would be to fall under the spell of the propaganda of the French Revolutionaries who were not very sympathetic to music. They were the ones who burned the harpsichords, after all. And it would also be to ignore Haydn's character. Especially towards the end of his life he worked very hard to support charities for the families of impoverished musicians and those injured in the on-going Napoleonic wars. He gave benefits that provided thousands of florins for charity. Think of him as being like an early 19th century Bono or Bob Geldof.

Now let's look at Tom's article on the Symphony No. 102. He writes:
By the time Haydn was preparing for his second visit to London, he knew what to expect from his audiences. He knew how much this middle-class audience of concert-goers – among the first properly public, as opposed to aristocratic, audiences for symphonic music in history – understood and appreciated his invention, his games of expectation and surprise, his effortless manipulation of genre, affect, and expressivity. And he knew he could push them and himself even further when he came back, when his celebrity and status were even greater than before. That means these symphonies are, in effect, palimpsests of listening, pieces composed with their effectiveness for a musically literate audience in mind. Haydn needed to keep surprising his London audiences, and to do that, he became still more skilful and economical – as well as bold and chandelier-breakingly shocking – in his deployment of his symphonic resources.
Well, first of all, the audience wasn't "middle-class" in the sense we understand it today. For example, one venue that was used for concerts was the Hanover Square Rooms. The main room, measuring 79 by 32 feet, had 2528 sq ft of space, sufficient for perhaps 800 listeners. These listeners were not small shopkeepers or publicans but ladies and gentlemen with a very large proportion of nobility and royalty. Haydn had been invited to the Queen's ball on his first visit to London and was particularly admired by the Prince of Wales. Personages like these were of course in attendance at his concerts. As the article in Wikipedia notes, "The Rooms enjoyed royal patronage from 1785 to 1793, with George III and Queen Charlotte frequent concert-goers."

I wish I knew what Mr. Service could possibly mean by the phrase "palimpsests of listening" but sorry, don't have a clue! Later he says about the first movement that
Haydn turns this movement into a miniature musical roller-coaster of the flouting of classical conventions.
The problem with this is that at this point in music history there were no "classical conventions". The whole notion of the relatively fixed conventions of classical music was really a theoretical postulate of 19th century theorists like A. B. Marx. For Haydn, who spent his whole life experimenting with different ways of organizing music, they simply didn't exist. Nor did they for his audience. So, no "flouting" of anything.

But these are mere quibbles. Tom Service is doing excellent work in re-acquainting readers of the Guardian with the symphonic repertoire. Much of what he says is very helpful and I wish him the very best in the rest of his project.

6 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Thanks for reminding us about Tom Service's symphony guide. I'm much more familiar with Bruckner's symphonies than Haydn's (mostly because of the huge amount of symphonies Haydn wrote, it's hard to keep track). Bruckner is actually one of my favorite symphonic composers. His symphonic music is very intense, both in its' more climatic moments and in its' calmer slower moments. My favorite is the 9th but the 8th is also very good. Tom Service's description contains many things I haven't though about. I don't know if you've mentioned it somewhere but he also wrote about Sibelius' 6th symphony (a very good choice too).

An especially interesting thing written about Bruckner's 8th:

"and the critic Eduard Hanslick - who left before the symphony's finale - wrote grudgingly, "In each of the four movements, especially the first and third, some interesting passages, flashes of genius, shine through - if only the rest of it was not there! It is not impossible that the future belongs to this nightmarish hangover style - a future we therefore do not envy!""

While I think the critic was harsh his prediction was surprisingly correct. Music became more and more nightmarish as tonality began to break down and then with 12 tone technique and then serialism and the whole extreme-modernist spectrum. I think the whole nightmarishness (or dark music) you wrote about in a post not long time ago mainly started with the romantic era as music got sadder and also darker. Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, his 32nd Sonata or Liszt's Tonentanz are pretty dark. This whole dark mood got amplified with modernist composition techniques and we are still a bit stuck in this quasiromantic quasimodernist dark mood.

Rickard Dahl said...

Anyways, something I forgot to mention and that I've been thinking for some time: Beethoven's 32nd sonata (at least in the beginning) makes me think of some sort of old (not the Twillight-type) vampire movie.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that what you are taking note of here is the demonic aspect to Romanticism that turned truly nightmarish in the 20th century. An early harbinger of this might be some music by Schubert. An example would be Der Erlkonig, written when he was seventeen, but already with a strong suggestion of the nightmarish. Goethe's Faust is another early influence. Yes, the opening of the Sonata, op 111 with its dotted vii diminished 7th chord of the dominant certainly has an extreme feel, possibly demonic!

Nathan Shirley said...

I think that element has always existed. There is the actual nightmare inspired Devil's Trill Sonata, various examples by Vivaldi, and of course painters like Bosch and Bruegel.

Many artists throughout history have been fascinated by the macabre, grotesque, demonic, etc. As music became increasingly chromatic, it simply became easier and more natural to express more extreme, nightmarish sounds. I would argue the 12 tone-ists and their followers express little or nothing, the music tends to have a creepy sound by the mere coincidence that if you play random pitches with random rhythms and random dynamics, the result is usually a bit unsettling... not good, just unsettling. That's in contrast to some of the fantastically unsettling music by Mussorgsky, for example.

Bryan Townsend said...

Maybe we could add Gesualdo in there as well. Good point about the unsettling qualities of serialism! And have you noticed that a lot of the music used in horror films sounds like bad Edgard Varèse?

Nathan Shirley said...

Bad Edgard Varèse? I'd say that's redundant.