Haydn Go Seek
The classical music field has become so besotted with commemorating composers' anniversaries – birth years, death years - that it is impossible to observe them all. Last year we had Messiaen and Carter (100), this year, Mendelssohn and Haydn, and there have been more 70th birthdays than we can count. As one publicist wittily observed, New York should be gearing up for official commemorations of the wunderkind Nico Muhly's 30th birthday (in 2011).
But Haydn, it seems to me, is getting lost in the shuffle. Washington had a whole festival called Mendelssohn on the Mall, but Haydn is being celebrated only through individual concerts (including two intriguing-looking ones this weekend by the Geringas Baritone Trio and, next week, "The Creation" with Helmuth Rilling and the National Symphony Orchestra).
And while Mozart's 250th birthday in 2006 had the entire country of Austria in a semi-permanent state of festival, the so-called Haydn Year, marking the 200th anniversary of his death, is focused mainly in the region of Burgenland around Esterhazy, where he was court composer for most of his career, rather than in Vienna.
You can blame the economy; in today's climate, the small country is no longer able to afford its wonted lavish expenditures (the budget for the Mozart Year in Vienna was $38.5 million). But you can also blame our view of Haydn. Though he was quite possibly the most influential composer of the Classical era – it was he who solidified the forms that became the structural norms of classical music for centuries to come – we tend to view him with affection rather than veneration. We worship Mozart as a young god; but Papa Haydn was just a prolific court composer who churned out symphonies, married a shrew, and showed time and again that you can demonstrate a sense of humor in music without any words at all. His music is inventive, engaging, funny - and easy, it seems, not to take too seriously. Today, there is not even a complete critical edition of his music, though one is in preparation.
The Austrian Cultural Forum in Washington last night opened a small traveling show on the composer that might better have been presented as a picture book: lots of uncredited reproductions of period portraits and cityscapes and music manuscripts tracing the stations of Haydn's life, with accompanying text blocks. If you're a lover of Haydn, it might be worth seeing, though there's probably little you don't know.
But it also makes me think about the subject of composers' anniversaries in general. How should we commemorate Haydn? What kind of Haydn festival would you like to see? Or is it enough to encounter his music tucked into larger programs, like bits of candy? And is there a real point to these commemorations, or is it just marketing hype representing, often, yet another desperate attempt by the failing record labels to sell a few more CDs?
Edited to add: And here, for Haydn fans, are a few Haydn concerts coming up in May.
Celebrate Haydn! Orchestra Festival, student orchestras from around the country, May 10
Homage to Haydn by the pianist Christopher Hinterhuber, May 15
“The Voice of Haydn,” solo vocal music, May 22
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