Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Listening to the Haydn symphonies

IVE BEEN LISTENING to Haydn these last few weeks, chronologically as is my absurd compulsion: at first the string quartets, up through Opus 9; more recently the symphonies. I tend to read authors and consider painters and sculptors the same way, reading where possible (and where I am interested) the complete works, beginning with the first and continuing to, ultimately, the last.

I do this because I am interested in the development of the author/composer’s work, both as it evolves intrinsically, you might say, within his/her output, and as it reflects awareness of outside events, whether the work of other, contemporary creative artists or the impact of social or environmental events.

This is particularly interesting when applied to Haydn’s symphonies. Though his are not the earliest in history, he is commonly thought to have defined the form, trying a number of approaches as to the number and disposition of its various movements, until he had pretty well fixed them in his last, “London” symphonies. (Where, to be honest, it seems to me he has sacrificed inventiveness to consistency.)

But how determine the chronological order of Haydn’s symphonies? This is a vexing problem, and one I have settled, I’m afraid, in an absurdly uncritical and arbitrary way: by following comments found by chance, as so much is these days, on the internet — at a website called, cutely, Haydn Seek, hosted by one Gurn Blanston, a fellow about whom I know nothing other than his fondness for Haydn. Blanston writes that his presentation is in turn taken from a German-language website, www.haydn107.com. This website reflects research by Sonja Gerlach; alas, I do not read German and so have pursued the matter no farther.

Blanston offers a table comparing the various number systems, beginning in 1757 with the first symphony. The commonly used numbers are taken from the Hoboken catalog, in which the symphonies are grouped in section I (that’s Roman-numeral-one). Though individual dates are generally unknowable, there’s agreement that Number One — Hob I:1, in D — is in fact the first, scored for pairs of oboes and horns and the usual string quintet.

It’s thought that the first 15 or so of these symphonies were composed for the house orchestra of Karl Joseph, Count Morzin, who hired the composer, then in his late twenties, in 1758, give or take a year. (Too much is uncertain in Haydn’s early history.) Morzin must have had a good band: there are challenging parts for oboe, horns, cello, and contrabass in these pieces.

My method in “studying” these symphonies — the word is too flattering — is to listen to them on YouTube, generally in a performance by Christoper Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, while reading the score, found at IMSLP.org. What fun to be reading scores again, after years of neglect; to be singing second horn or contrabass lines, even if I do find my bass range is gone and I’m lucky to fake a low F.

This all began with a chance remark by my grandson Simon, who’d gone to a Salt Lake City Symphony concert to hear something of Messiaen’s, I think it was, and The Rite of Spring, and was less than interested in the Haydn 10th (actually the 5th in the new chronology). I immediately listened to the 10th, and was surprised at the part-writing in the violins, especially in the Andante.

Morzin had to let Haydn go in 1760, but recommended him to Prince Anton Esterházy, where he found an even better position. But the Morzin year, or years, saw the composition of probably fifteen symphonies, almost all for the same instrumental forces — oboes, horns, and strings, with a bassoon likely playing with contrabass — but three, all in C major, adding trumpets and drums. The thematic material ranges from country-style dance music to heartfelt slow movements, occasionally for solo violin — Haydn would likely have played those himself, as he “conducted” these pieces violin in hand.

This morning I got to Number 34 (old style: in the Gerlach numbering, 29 — composed (along with five others) in 1763. D Minor is of course a very serious business, and this symphony opens with a stately, formal Adagio that lasts twelve minutes. (Hogwood’s recordings thankfully take all the repeats. Then a suddenly energetic Allegro, with slashing violin themes above a jog-trot propulsion in the lower strings. The Menuetto returns to symmetrical formality, but prominent oboe and horn parts retain the ironic energy of the Allegro; and the final Presto assai, very fast indeed, feels like an invitation to the listeners to move along out of the concert hall.

Who first heard these pieces? Who did Haydn write them for? The musicians first, I think — they must have worried a bit about some of the fast passages, and maybe even — the wind players — about counting their rests. But what about an audience? Presumably the Prince and his family and guests. Austrian nobility and upper-class were musical (the Prince played baryton) and took keen interest in new music. A piece like the opening Adagio of this d minor symphony requires patience: it is as severe and symmetrical as the facade of Esterházy Castle. Attending to this music reminds us of life as it was before electricity and the gasoline engine: as difficult to imagine, for many today, as life without internet and computer.

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