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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

By Anne Midgette  |  April 24, 2009; 4:30 PM ET
Categories:  music history , random musings  
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1. Haydn loves it when you call him Big Papa. Or I love calling him "Big Papa Haydn," anyway.

2. Franz Joseph Haydn is the most underrated composer in our modern era. This is because his compositions speak to virtues our culture does not value: cultivation, invention that doesn't necessarily call attention to itself, wit (as opposed to jokes), generosity of spirit. Another problem is that his corpus is simply too big for non-professionals to wrap their arms around. There are too many wonderful Haydn works, so popular opinion coalesces around none of them...typically. I have heard Op. 77 no. 2 three times this season, in three very different interpretations, and it's been an eye-opening experience. But Haydn wrote about 30 string quartets that are no less than 80 percent as good as that one.

3. There should be a huge Haydn festival. I would like it to involve an orchestra that is really, really good at performing Haydn symphonies and concertos (as long as I am fantasizing, let's say the BPO under Rattle, or maybe Orpheus), doing some programs that span the composer's lifespan and show both the common threads of his invention and the stylistic diversity. Mikhail Pletnev can do the piano concertos, and perhaps Yo-Yo Ma can do the second cello concerto as part of these programs. I'd want Marc-Andre Hamelin or Anne-Marie McDermott doing two consecutive nights of the scandalously underheard piano sonatas. And as long as I'm fantasizing, we'll have a couple nights of flute trios, baryton trios, etc., and a night of songs like the Austrian cultural forum is doing, and a couple of the amazing masses. For the festival's glorious finale, four different string quartets (let's say Takacs, Mosaiques, Emerson, and Daedalus, to get widely disparate perspectives) play four all-Haydn programs. All of these programs would be required to include Op. 76 no. 6, which is my favorite one, so I can hear new things in it for four consecutive nights and feel infinitely refreshed each time.

4. I know I am right about all of this.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 25, 2009 9:59 PM | Report abuse

Also, anniversaries are stupid, except if you can get an awesome festival together like in #3 above.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 25, 2009 10:00 PM | Report abuse

To further amend my remarks, I forgot to mention in #2 that Haydn's life is deeply at odds with the prototypical "artist story" that our modern culture likes to see from its cultural geniuses: the struggle for acceptance, the lack of appreciation/money in the artist's own time, the challenge to existing social structures, etc. Haydn's relative prosperity and stability seems to us moderns a poor breeding ground for genius: and yet, there it is. Lacking an ability to comprehend Haydn's story, we lack an appropriate level of interest in his music.

I think it's probably telling that, of the people I know who count Haydn among their top 5 or so composers, all of them are musicians (except me). To know Haydn is to love Haydn, but we have trouble getting to know him nowadays.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 26, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Who said something about the "happy death day"?

Having said that, I think that anniversaries are great opportunity for hearing less known works from a composer. Haynd's operas, anyone?

As for Nico Muhly, this guy's a phoney - and full of himself, on top of that.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 26, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

Also honoring Haydn was the Choral Arts Society's concert of Sunday, April 26, in the KCCH, with the "Spring" cantata from "The Seasons."

Posted by: CharlieCerf | April 27, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Lindemann777 is right that Haydn is the most under-rated composer. But I think the reason his excellence is less celebrated (as I think he is appreciated) is pretty simple: He wrote music that's easy to enjoy on the surface - no doubt to satisfy his employers and their guests - but complex and interesting below the surface.
So the average listener might think, oh, that's pretty, and moves on to more Mozart and Beethoven.
It's that listener's loss. The prelude to The Creation - imagine hearing that in the 1800's, it would have sounded daring to a late 19th century audience.
The Lord Nelson Mass, I never get tired listening to its beautiful seriousness. Then the violins in the closing Dona Nobis Pacem make me laugh. Did Haydn write it that way because he equated peace with laughter, or is it sarcastic laughter?

Posted by: c-clef | April 27, 2009 9:26 AM | Report abuse

"There should be a huge Haydn festival."

A local organization that you might have heard of -- the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts -- did host a major international Haydn Festival 33 years ago, back in the days when the Center was fresh, visionary, literate, and carefully balancing of the best of international and national arts in its programming and commissioning. It was also well before our national performing arts center began awarding Kennedy Center Honors Awards to British rock and roll stars rather than to nationally acclaimed and cherished classical and popular artists (e.g. Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey -- so much for 'recognizing and presenting the greatest performers and performances').

Maybe a staffer or intern at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will post on the Kennedy Center website a history of -- and digitally scan associated materials for -- Washington's 1976 International Haydn Festival.

Posted by: snaketime | April 27, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Of the 35 gigabytes of classical music I have ripped and downloaded (legally, mind you, from onto an external hard drive, I have several of the FJ Haydn "name" symphonies.

Recently I played several playlists (all Beethoven, all Mendelssohn, Mozart symphonies among them) for a close female acquaintance, who has very little exposure to classical music beyond the very basics.

Out of all of them, she favored most the playlist of Haydn "name" symphonies.

Posted by: SportzNut21 | April 27, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Interesting, and cheering, experiment. Thanks for sharing.

After Haydn assumes his rightful place in musical history, I'll begin my advocacy work on behalf of Dvorak.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | April 27, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

Love all the comments about Haydn. The NSO really missed the boat by not indicating the language of this week's subscription performances of The Creation. I have seen most of the printed ads and actually made three telephone calls to various numbers, and none of these has produced an answer. I would assume that, because the performances are to be conducted by Helmut Rilling, the performances will be in German. I have sung the work in English and am more comfortable listening to the work in English. At this juncture, three days before the first performance, I have other plans for the weekend and couldn't hear any of the performances even had I wished to do so. Someone at the NSO dropped the ball.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | April 27, 2009 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Oh, yes, Kennedy Center Haydn Festival. One of course should recall that the musica director of the NSO at that time was Antal Dorati who recorded more Haydn than anyone else. The fact that he was sacked soon remains one of the major mistakes the NSO ever did.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | April 28, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, cicciofrancolando.

I had been thinking of going back and adding the reference to Antal Dorati and the NSO, and am very glad that you did so. (I also agree with your editorial comment regarding his departure from the NSO.)

I can’t now remember. Did the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts International Haydn Festival in 1976 include a performance, under Antal Dorati, of Armida (1784), La fedeltà premiata (1781), Orlando paladino (1782), La vera costanza (1779), L'incontro improviso (1775), L'infedeltà delusa (1773), L'isola disabitata (1779), Il mondo della luna (1777), or L'anima del filosofo ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (1791) – all championed (and almost all recorded) by Maestro Dorati?

I don’t believe so, but I am unsure and lack the proper documentation at hand.

It would, however, seem a loss if the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Antal Dorati, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Washington National Opera, and such then-active Haydn singers as Arleen Auger, Elly Ameling, Frederica von Stade, Ileana Cotrubas, Helen Donath, Jessye Norman, Claes H. Ahnsjo, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Fritz Widmer, Alan Titus, Domenico Trimarchi, Barbara Hendricks, Benjamin Luxon, and Lucia Valentini-Terrani could not have brought a Haydn opera performance to one of the fresh, new stages of the Kennedy Center.

(The next season, of course, featured the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts International Handel Festival.)

Posted by: snaketime | April 28, 2009 2:41 PM | Report abuse

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