The Musical Genius of Haydn


Dr. Pei-Gwen South

He is revered within musical academia — a familiar name amongst musical scholars, students and dedicated enthusiasts.  Yet, mention the name of Haydn within the wider public domain, and one is likely to be met with blank expressions and the response, "Haydn?  Who's that?" Indeed, even in terms of concert performances and radio broadcasts, his music is conspicuously absent from the popular, mainstream repertoire that is heard by audiences time and again.  Perhaps this explains, if only in part, why his name has not crossed successfully into the public consciousness.  Yet, the question that needs to be asked is, "Why?" For this was a man who was greatly admired and respected, and whose musical influence and importance was both recognized and unparalleled in his own lifetime.

Born in Rohrau, Austria, in 1732, the son of a wheelwright and a cook, Franz Josef Haydn went on to become one of the greatest composers of what is commonly referred to as the "Classical" period in Western music history (or, the "Viennese" period or "Enlightenment").  Blessed with a beautiful voice, he took his first steps into the musical world as a choirboy in St.  Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, where he received some technical grounding and exposure to choral music.  By and large, however, his compositional skills were self-taught and developed, through the study of various textbooks, and the Clavier sonatas of C.P.E.  Bach.  Leaving the choir at the age of 13, Haydn earned his living by teaching the piano and violin, accompanying, and composing and performing whenever the opportunity arose.  By 1756 he was becoming known in Vienna.  Nonetheless, despite his endeavour, these were difficult years, and it was not until he was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister (and later Kapellmeister) to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy in 1761 that Haydn was finally able to compose full time.

A simple and kind-hearted man, known affectionately amongst his peers as "Papa Haydn", he was an extremely prolific composer who contributed to every genre of music in his day.  His substantial oeuvre includes 104 symphonies, more than 50 piano sonatas, 83 string quartets and various other forms of chamber music, concertos, smaller orchestral and keyboard works, operas, oratorios (including the best known sacred work of the period, The Creation), masses, much other sacred music, and numerous songs.  It is an impressive achievement, not merely due to its proportions, but because of the variety, originality and quality that defines it.

Haydn was an intellectual and skilled craftsman; he did not write on the surface, filling his music with superficial and hollow gestures as other of his contemporaries did.  Rather, he sought to achieve meaningful, even at times sublime, manifestation of his creative thought, imbuing his works with a depth of expression, invention and technical competence befitting a true artist.  The remoteness of the Esterházy palace, Esterháza, set in an isolated country area, meant that Haydn was insulated from the musical life and currents of the Austrian capital, and, as such, the seclusion forced him to be original and gave him the freedom to experiment.  In the symphonies alone, which completely overshadowed those of his contemporaries, there is a prodigious range of expressions and styles such that he never repeats himself, giving validation to the idea that there is no typical Haydn symphony.  From the early programmatic Symphonies Nos.  6-8 ("Le Matin", "Le Midi", "Le Soir"), to the dramatic vitality and expressiveness of his Sturm und Drang ('Storm and Stress') symphonies, to the simpler musical language and bolder orchestration of the 1790s, the symphonies are all quite different.  And, where the works of others often exuded the pattern-making formality that characterized the period, Haydn developed his ideas more fully, so that the music evolves and changes in interesting and unexpected ways.  One can find ample evidence of this in the symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas, particularly the later ones.

This talent was neither lost on his employer nor the musical community.  In an age of patronage where musicians (including composers) were treated as servants, Haydn came to enjoy an elevated social status that brought him invitations from royalty and independent requests to write music.  He was, for instance, invited to stay at Windsor Castle by the King of England, but Haydn declined the offer.  His initial contract with Esterházy had forbidden him from fulfilling commissions or publishing his works, but, as his fame spread, this condition was relaxed.

By the 1770s Haydn had a permanent publisher — the Viennese firm, Artaria — and, in addition to providing music for the Esterházy estate, he was kept busy filling commissions from both publishers and individuals.  He became renowned not only in Austria, but across the whole of Europe, particularly in Paris, where his reputation enabled him to make important contacts.  In 1784, he was commissioned by Compte d'Ogny to write a group of 6 symphonies, which became known as the "Paris" Symphonies.  Performed at the Concert de La Loge Olympique and the prestigious Concert spirituel by the country's most elite orchestras, these works garnered widespread acclaim and thrust Haydn further into the spotlight.

The death of Nikolaus Esterházy (Paul Anton's successor) in 1790, and the disbanding of the palace orchestra, freed Haydn from much of his musical duties, though he was still retained in his post as a symbolic gesture.  Indeed, such was the esteem in which he was held that he was provided for in Nikolaus' will, where he was given a substantial retirement pension.  Haydn was now at liberty to compose as he wished.  He received offers from all over Europe, but decided to accept the invitation of the impresario, Peter Salomon, to go to London in 1791, where he stayed for 2 years.  His second London visit, again arranged by Salomon, was made in 1794.  These were amongst the most successful composer tours ever made.  From these years came the 12 "London" Symphonies — the last symphonic works that Haydn composed, and for which great resources were placed at his command.  He was extremely well received and was the toast of the musical establishment.  Indeed, it has often been said that this was a rare moment in music history, where the most popular and talked about composer of the day was, in fact, the best.  He moved in circles with the elite of the musical world, including impresarios, virtuosos and composers, and was awarded a Doctorate from Oxford University.

Viewed retrospectively, Haydn was a significant historical figure who achieved much that is of musical importance.  Certainly, the calibre of his works and their contribution to the Western musical literature is, in itself, substantial.  Also noteworthy is the fact that he composed the Austrian national anthem, "The Emperor's Hymn" (which he integrated into the "Emperor" String Quartet).  However, his achievement is more than quantitative.  Haydn established the essential features of modern orchestral writing, was responsible for establishing the string quartet genre and setting the standards that were subsequently followed, and, as the father of the symphony, was an important influence on the development of the modern symphony and sonata form, owing to his experiments with musical form, including structural modification, and thematic manipulation, fragmentation and development.  The only other composer to significantly contribute in this last respect was Beethoven.

Having said this, what becomes abundantly clear is the disparity between the highly successful and prominent profile Haydn sustained during his lifetime, and the position he occupies in the popular consciousness today.  It is a discrepancy whose measure is further underlined by the fact that, within the commonly recognized canon of great composers, number some whose influence was comparatively limited, and whose works and reputation garnered little favour in their day.  Yet, in Haydn's case, whilst his posthumous treatment is unjust, it is also not wholly unexpected given who he was.

Haydn was a Being of Light.  More significantly, however, he was The Divine Amoeba.  As such, his music is a supreme expression of that Pure, Divine Energy from the Higher Realms brought down to help nurture and sustain the Beings of Light trapped in this physical dimension.  It is no wonder, then, that evil has tried so hard to marginalize his music and to limit its influence and impact.  Of course, those who try to rationalize the situation with their outer, physical minds will claim that there is no accounting for public taste.  But those who are awakened to the Truth know that "taste" has little to do with aesthetic value or preference, but is rather a mechanism of evil programming that is used to sabotage and manipulate.

Evil has always tried to usurp and block that which is of the Light — to adopt or try to emulate the Divine expression in a bid to pass it off as its own, and music is no exception.  Music history is riddled with the evil ones and frauds, who tried to thwart, compete with, and imitate the musical efforts of the Light Beings.  That is why not all "great" music has its source in the Divine, and why not all the recognized "masters" were necessarily of the Light.

In the music of Haydn, though, the Divine essence emanates and touches all those receptive to its energy.  No other composer so completely embraces the Classical style or achieves so much within its aesthetic.  He was, and is, the true master.

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