Monday, January 27, 2014

Haydn, Music and the Light and the Dark

I usually end with a music clip, but today I would like to start with one. I am in the process of listening to all 106 Haydn symphonies right now and I'm up to the Symphony No. 92 in G major, nicknamed the "Oxford" Symphony because it was the one he chose to conduct at a ceremony in which he was given an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. It was not written for the occasion, but was one of a group of three symphonies he had just written for the Count d'Ogny. The whole symphony is lovely and charming as Haydn's symphonies usually are. But what really captured my attention was the last movement:

I'll bet that shook some dust off the rafters. This is probably as frivolous as serious music gets. And of course, it isn't frivolous at all, it is just high-spirited fun. But if most of us sit down to write five minutes of high-spirited fun, we don't come up with anything this good. This kind of moto perpetuo is tried by many composers, but the results are almost never this good. Listen to the completely unexpected harmonic swoop around the 2:40 mark when the music just seem to take on a whole other dimension. The problem with dashing moto perpetuos is that they are often too perpetuo, too much all the same. Listen for example to the last movement of Beethoven's String Quartet, op. 59, no. 3, the allegro molto:

This is a real tour-de-force, but instead of the sheer gaiety of the Haydn, in comparison it is just a bit too relentless and dogged.

Sometimes, while listening through all the Haydn symphonies, I have wondered to myself why Beethoven and Mozart are rated so much higher than Haydn. They obviously learned so much from him. Was it just that he wrote so many symphonies? Would he be more popular if he had just written nine or ten? Or fifteen or twenty? Instead of one hundred and six (or eight, depending on what you count).

But perhaps it is that Mozart and Beethoven have a better "story". Mozart, the child prodigy, dying tragically young and buried in a pauper's grave. Beethoven with an alcoholic father and going deaf from his early thirties and with a mysterious love interest. Haydn? Well, apart from making a very poor marriage, there really isn't a lot to tell. He was entirely in the world of music from seven years old and by the time he died he was the most famous musician in Europe. No scandals. He was a very good man, in later years often dedicating funds from performances of his big oratorios to charities for musician's families. Just a good guy. But we somehow we seem to require that great musicians have a tragic dimension.

In the case of Mozart and Beethoven, it was just happenstance, but through the nineteenth century, one almost starts to suspect that the "story" was something crafted to appeal to the public. In the case of performers like Paganini and Liszt, one is certain of it!

But good old Haydn didn't have a dramatic life, he just wrote great music. Truly great music. Because why would we rate music that captures sheer joy and effervescence lower than music that captures melancholy and despair? But we do seem to, don't we? But can you go back and listen to that presto from the Symphony No. 92 and still think that should rate lower than melancholy? Here, let me put up another Beethoven example for you. This is the last movement of the String Quartet, op. 18, no. 6, the long introduction to which Beethoven himself labeled, La Malinconia:

After the very long, four minute opening (long enough to be a separate movement), the music continues with a more conventional finale. Lots of remarkable harmonic things going on in La Malinconia, but is this better in any way, aesthetically, than Haydn's vivacious delight?

I think that the twist towards the dark, the sad, the melancholic, that was the specialty of the 19th century, has distorted our perceptions. The neoclassicists of the 1920s and 30s tried to undo some of that, but only partially successfully. But it is odd, is it not, that we should feel that dark music is better or more powerful than light music? To drop the metaphor, in the physical world light has all the power. The light of the sun, even 93 million miles away, is overwhelming and we see a thousand shades and hues of light, but darkness is just, well, dark.

Is it just a romantic conceit that sorrow is more aesthetically weighty than joy? When you listen to movements like the Haydn presto above, it does make you wonder, doesn't it? Perhaps we have been deceived by shallow music that only offers a kind of vulgar gaiety. But Haydn and Offenbach are really on different planes, aren't they?

Let me leave you with one last Haydn finale: this is to his last symphony, no. 104 in D major:


Shantanu said...

"The light of the sun, even 93 million miles away, is overwhelming and we see a thousand shades and hues of light, but darkness is just, well, dark."

These are the things for which one reads your blog!

I would like to draw a parallel to what you are saying. It's often said that it is more difficult for an actor to play the role of a very divergent person - perhaps a maniac, an eccentric or just a very childish person. But I believe it is more difficult to carry the role of a completely sane and complete individual, a person whose personality has various shades and features, which all together paint a human picture.

So it is with happy and sad music, I guess.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much, Shantanu. That is one of the nicest compliments I have received.

Yes, I think you are right about actors. It is always fun to play the big, bad villain with much gnashing of teeth. But to play a sane and complete individual, and make that enticing, is probably more difficult.