Graceful Haydn

The older I grow the more I listen to Haydn. There is something measured in his pace that goes with daily life. The sturm und drang of youth is over and I can no longer bear the emotional excesses of Romanticism. Of course, there is always Mozart. But listening to him involves the pain of the preternatural. Such perfection always evokes a sense of loss. He is for special occasions. And with Beethoven there is simply too much raw power for a steady diet. Haydn has the right proportions. He exemplifies Classical equilibrium. He does so because, to a large degree, he created it.

Haydn developed the sonata form to a perfection surpassed only by Mozart himself. The Classical string quartet and piano sonata are his children, and he brought the symphony to new heights. He did this over the course of a long life of 77 years in an extraordinary profusion of compositions that include over 100 symphonies; some 80 string quartets; 52 sonatas; 31 piano trios; 125 baryton trios; 14 Masses; 23 operas; 4 oratorios and many concertos, among other works. In other words, if you start listening to Haydn now, there is little likelihood that you will run out. Nor will you wish to, because the level of craft and invention he sustained over the creation of such a large body of work is unparalleled. So too is the sweetness, sanity, good cheer, congeniality, beauty, balance and grace that his works express.

The use of the term “Classical” refers to more than the formal accomplishments of Haydn in developing the sonata. He has in abundance what 19th century American painter Kenyon Cox called “the Classic Spirit.” According to Cox, “the Classic Spirit is the disinterested search for perfection; it is the love of clearness and reasonableness and self-control; it is, above all, the love of permanence and of continuity. . . . It seeks not merely to express individuality or emotion but to express disciplined emotion and individuality restrained by law. It strives for the essential rather than the accidental — the eternal rather than the momentary — loves impersonality more than personality, and feels more power in the orderly succession of the hours and the seasons than in the violence of earthquake or of storm.” By itself this would be a wonderful description of Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons, a marvelous depiction of “the orderly succession of the seasons,” but it also serves as a description of the general spirit of his life’s work.

How Haydn himself saw his life’s labor reveals another aspect of this spirit. In 1802, he wrote:

Often, when struggling against obstacles of every sort which oppose my labors: often, when the powers of mind and body weakened, and it was difficult for me to continue in the course I had entered on; — a secret voice whispered to me: ‘there are so few happy and contented peoples here below; grief and sorrow are always their lot; perhaps your labors will once be a source from which the care-worn, or the man burdened with affairs, can derive a few moments’ rest and refreshment.’ This was indeed a powerful motive to press onwards, and this is why I now look back with cheerful satisfaction on the labors expended on this art, to which I have devoted so many long years of uninterrupted effort and exertion.

One can hardly imagine Beethoven, or any major 19th-century artist, infected as they were with Promethean self-regard, referring to the purpose of their art as “a few moments’ rest and refreshment” for the care-worn. They were too busy storming the heavens or taking inventory of their inner emotional life. How could Haydn, then, with so modest a goal, achieve so much? The answer might be in the very modesty of his goal. Haydn was animated by the spirit of service. Service to what? Something greater than his art, of which his art then became the expression. Haydn’s contemporary biographer, Georg August Griesinger said, “Haydn was very religiously inclined, and a devoted follower of the religion in which he grew up. In his heart he was most firmly convinced that all human destiny lies under God’s guiding hand; that God is the rewarder of good and evil; that all talents came from above.” All Haydn’s larger scores begin with the words In nomine Domini and close with Laus Deo or Soli Deo gloria.

Haydn’s humility was the wellspring of his creative freedom and fecundity. Because of it, his music is not freighted with Promethean ambition: it is never hysterical and never loses its sense of human scale. It flows freely. When it did not, Haydn had his own way of overcoming writer’s block. As he explained to Griesinger: “If, when I am composing, things don’t go quite right, I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Ayes, and then the ideas come again.” Of the two years it took to compose The Creation, Haydn said, “every day I fell on my knees and asked God for the strength to complete it.” Humility is also the source of the sanity and humor that his works unfailingly manifest. As Haydn said, “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving him cheerfully.” This man was not consumed by self.

Haydn’s selflessness not only left him free to compose such masterpieces as The Creation and The Seven Last Words, it gave him an accurate appreciation for his own abilities and those of others. He was revered as the greatest composer of Europe and he knew that he largely deserved the reputation. Yet he took no pride in it, nor did he envy others. As Griesinger explained, “A natural consequence of Haydn’s religiosity was his modesty; for his talent was not of his own doing but a gracious gift of Heaven, for which he considered he must show himself grateful.” During tumultuous applause for a performance of The Creation, Haydn pointed upwards and exclaimed to the audience: “It was from Him!” That gratitude spilled over to other gifted composers whose potential Haydn was among the first to recognize. Haydn announced in the presence of Mozart’s father, Leopold, that his son was the greatest composer alive. So moved was Haydn by Mozart’s death that it is said he would not allow the mention of Mozart’s name because he would burst into tears at hearing it. He said, “My friends often flatter me about my talent, but he was far above me.” After briefly teaching the young Beethoven, Haydn was quick to size him up and announced: “Beethoven will in time fill the position of one of Europe’s greatest composers.” He was equally kind to others and closely looked after his orchestra at Esterhazy, whose members called him “Papa.” That term of endearment soon spread and became generally used.

In 1808, in Vienna, a gala performance of The Creation was organized to celebrate Haydn’s seventy-sixth birthday, the last such performance the by-then decrepit Haydn was able to attend. Contemporary biographer Giuseppe Carpani relates that when the galvanizing passage, “And there was Light,” was reached, Haydn “raised his trembling arms to Heaven, as if in prayer to the Father of Harmony.” Too exhausted to remain for the full performance, Haydn had to be carried out of the room by porters. He turned at the door, “thanked them with the usual gestures of acceptance, then, looking at heaven, and with tears in his eyes, he blessed his children.” In little over a year he was dead. His last words: “Children, be comforted. I am well.” With typical humor, Haydn had told Griesinger that the most appropriate epitaph for him would be: “Vixi, Scripsi, Dixi.” Perhaps it should have been “Servi.”

For those who wish to explore the treasures of Haydn’s music, there is an abundance of good to great Haydn recordings on budget to mid-priced CDs. Start with his chamber music and sonatas. The last two issues in Naxos’ budget series of Haydn’s string quartets and piano sonatas illustrate the merits of the Kodaly Quartet and pianist Jeno Jando, respectively. Naxos 8.550787 contains Quartets Nos. 2, 5, and 6 from Op. 9 and Naxos 8.553128 presents Sonatas Nos. 4852. These are wonderful performances, but one can with confidence jump in anywhere in either of these series with the same artists and find the same high standards. Now on Philips’ budget label, Colin Davis’ performances of Haydn’s “London” symphonies, Nos. 94104, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, are one of the great buys in the catalogue. For a sublime rendition of The Creation, one need go no further than Herbert von Karajan on a mid- priced DGG recording from 1969. The complete Piano Trios are irresistible from the Beaux Arts Trio on a mid-price Philips’ CD set.

Do not miss The Seven Last Words, Haydn’s Good Friday meditation. As Haydn explained in a letter to his publisher, “each text is expressed by purely instrumental music in such a fashion that it should produce the deepest impression on the most uninstructed listener.” I particularly love this profound music in its string quartet version, though Haydn originally wrote it for orchestra and later adapted it for chorus as well. Listen to how Haydn can produce eight consecutive adagios and still keep the listener riveted.


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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