It was worth purchasing the latest edition of Commentary for Terry Teachout's article ("Haydn!") alone (the draw of Joshua Muravchik's article "Why the Democrats keep losing" notwithstanding). In what is more or less an introductory piece on Haydn, rightly one of TT's great musical loves, he marvels at Haydn's relative lack of popularity. I myself have wondered about this a great deal, although not from the position of erudite consideration as does TT, but because of my very different experience with the Austrian composer from childhood on.
Growing up with "Haydn for Kids"-like biographical cassette tapes (recorded for me by my father, grandfather, and uncle) and enjoying the most obviously witty moments his works , Haydn was very naturally and clearly, and by a wide margin, my favorite composer. Add to that the far greater reputation and importance of Haydn in central Europe with regards to recordings, broadcasts, and concert programming, and it's easy to see how I thought him curiously missing from the American musical landscape. His stature in central Europe is such that if you asked ten Austrians who the most quintessentially Austrian composer was, some eight would give "Papa Haydn" as the answer (or else not know what to make of the question).
Listening to classical radio stations in the U.S., I noticed early on that his place is rather neatly occupied by Dvořák, a composer who has much less clout in Europe. Dvořák's popularity is easily (if superficially) explained by pointing to From the New World and the American String Quartet. He's the honorary American composer, never mind how genuinely un-American especially the quartet is.
Terry Teachout goes some way into explaining Haydn's lack of true and broad popularity (and his fall from grace at the end of the 18th century). While TT may be overly glum about "no great artists championing Haydn" -- Harnoncourt recently recorded The Creation [in German, naturally - BMG] very well, René Jacobs's brand-new Seasons [Harmonia Mundi] blows all previous recordings out of the water, Emanuel Ax likes and records the Piano Sonatas [I - II - III - Sony], Leif Ove Andsnes has two wonderful discs with Haydn keyboard works [sonatas and concertos - EMI], Mme. Piazzini's complete traversal of the piano sonatas was just issued on Oehms, Jenö Jandó's versions on Naxos [he also recorded all of them] are most enjoyable in their dry, classical style)-- his general point is well taken.
One element of TT's explanation is what I call the "Mendelssohn conundrum of lasting greatness." Much like Mendelssohn, Haydn was a composer who enjoyed job security, had a generally unexciting, (almost) scandal-free private life, was all-around pleasantly mannered, friendly, healthy and hygienic, prosperous; in short, frightfully well adjusted. Of all the things you can do wrong to secure yourself genius status, Mendelssohn nailed but one: dying young. (A big plus, but not enough to make up for his other lack of flaws.) Haydn couldn't even oblige there and had the impunity to live to the ripe old age of 77. There is, as TT points out, no redeeming factor in his biography that would endear him to our still essentially Romantic world view. No brooding, ill-fated, half-mad, badly tempered off-kilter genius here. No wonder Haydn—The Movie has, unlike (distorted) accounts of Beethoven and Mozart, yet to pour forth from Hollywood. And yet, according to the formula of "quality over average quantity plus originality," he is the greatest composer to have lived. Teachout's tribute is very fine, and I see only a point in adding a few remarks to his discussion of recordings.
|J.Haydn, "London" Symphonies, |
E.Jochum / LPO
The Beaux Arts Trio set of the complete trios he recommends is phenomenal and unlikely ever to be bettered. Get it! Alfred Brendel's Haydn is some of his best playing on record: alas, the four-CD set TT comments on is available only in Europe or through Amazon.co.uk. A taster has been made available in the US with the release of one of those discs as part of the Penguin Rosette Collection issues by Universal.
Edit: Re-issued in toto, at last, in 2009.
The Emerson String Quartet's Haydn Project, to put it in no uncertain words, sucks. The playing is formidable and technically flawless, alright, but humor and wit and vivaciousness are given short shrift... and unacceptably so. Better look for alternatives with the Kodály Quartet's fine Naxos recordings, or the miraculously joyful Quatuor Mosaïques (Astree—see Ionarts review).
And then there is one more little thing. One sentence in TT's article where I gnashed my teeth violently: "... so did Haydn acknowledge that natural law of tonality...." A statement that—with all due respect to TT, a man more erudite and experienced than I shall ever hope to be—is of course boorish nonsense and a great, if excusable, folly. There is nothing natural about our modern-day tonality which has as much to do with Pythagoras's findings as Brooklyn slang has to do with ancient Athenian Greek. Nor is the 'circle-of-fifths-twelve-compromised-semitones-to-the-octave-tuned-tonality' in any way "natural" (except the Fifth), much less akin to law, to other cultural realms.
Now I'll defend my values, arbitrary as I know them to be, almost as vigorously as Terry Teachout might... and I, too, think that in music, western tonality as we now know it produces superior results... but I find that calling "natural law" that which is verifiably neither 'natural' nor 'law' decidedly unhelpful. Let us be content that our music, for its tonality, is more beautiful (to our ears, at least) and that in that happy realm there were few greater than Master Haydn!