Joseph Haydn and the art of happiness

As we begin to look toward August, I will release program notes from this summer’s repertoire (tickets on sale June 1st). This week: Haydn!

The author at music camp in ‘82
in his previous career as a naval engineer
(note the title of the barque: USS Beached Whale)

In 1982, I attended music camp for the first time as an awkward teenager. They immediately sat me down in front of Haydn’s string quartet Opus 64, Number 5, “The Lark.” The music was so joyful, so delightful - I fell in love.

Make that two

Composers, no less than poets and playwrights, are driven to express what they experience, which can be difficult sometimes: art reflects the world we inhabit. That said, sometimes we need to leave the 18-year-old scotch on the shelf and order a margarita. At those times, we can be grateful for the tonic that is Joseph Haydn. Prolific composer of string quartets – sixty-eight, last time I checked – “Papa” Haydn was also an all-around mensch, beloved as an artist but also a kind and compassionate human being. “The Lark” is a happy piece. Musicologist Paul Epstein described the arc of the four movements as "a story, a song, a dance and a party."

“Haydn [had an] ability to create an emotion
that was completely his own

and that no other composer, including Mozart,
could duplicate –a feeling of ecstasy that is
completely unsensual, almost amiable.”

- pianist and musicologist, Charles Rosen

That summer of ‘82 I met my first bosom buddy, Misha Amory, who went on to become founding violist of the Brentano String Quartet. Misha gave me permission to quote liberally from his program notes:  

In 1790, Joseph Haydn was 58, and had been in the employ of the court at Esterhaza for almost thirty years. During that time the composer had been very productive, enjoying an assured income and the time and demand necessary to work constantly. It was in this period that he matured the genres of symphony and the string quartet, and established them enduringly as artforms, even if (some would say) his greatest contributions to those genres were yet to come.

This year was to witness a major shift in Haydn’s life and career, as his patron, Count Nicholas, died and his successor released the composer from his contract. Simultaneously the great impresario Salomon made his appearance, and brought Haydn to London, where he was to have an impact that would make him the most famous composer in Europe. His style was to lose none of its inventiveness or depth, but a clear shift is palpable as Haydn aims his music at a larger, more public concert hall instead of the intimate court audiences he had known.

The six opus 64 quartets straddle this moment of change. Haydn wrote the last two of these quartets (including the celebrated “Lark” quartet) with the London public in view, while the first four are still the creation of Haydn the court composer.

George and Louis: not big fans of democracy

Haydn was writing during a time of political upheaval when despots like George the III (England) and Louis XVI (France) were struggling to keep control of the great unwashed; burgeoning democratic political ideals of the Enlightenment had a direct effect on the world of art and music. Early on, ensembles had the first violinist as de facto “leader” but, as Haydn developed and refined his concept of the string quartet, revolutionary concepts of political liberty led him to turn from the tyranny of an autocratic first violin towards a more democratic meeting of minds. The other voices - second violin, viola, and cello – developed a vital role instead of acting as musical cannon fodder, realizing Goethe’s definition of a string quartet as “a stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.” Similarly, new ideas of individualism led Haydn to explore uncharted territories of musical expression with unusual rhythms, shocking silences, and asymmetrical melodies that stuck a thumb into traditional phrasing.

The Enlightenment in art -
William Hogarth’s “The Gaming House:”
everyman in a real-life situation, not a royal stole to be seen

By the early 20th Century, roles in a string quartet had become fuzzy. First and second gave way to “high” and “low” violins; composers like Debussy, Bartók , and Berg fell in love with the viola’s saturnine disposition; the cello’s uncharted upper registers became fair game for expression; and the sonic capabilities of how a string quartet could sound broadened beyond the wildest imaginings of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. The string quartet became the ultimate ensemble production.

Jerry as first violin; Elaine, second;
George is the violist, and Kramer on cello?

Today, with hindsight, you can see the groundwork for this laid way back in 1790 with Haydn’s “Lark” quartet (it got its nickname from the soaring violin melody right at the beginning). Everyone has an essential and interesting role, everyone gets solos, the inner voices aren’t just filling out the harmony, the cello doesn’t just grind out bass notes. The first movement is full of bonhomie; the second, one of those warm, slow movements like a hug from an old friend; the Minuet is all whimsy and dad jokes (where you smile even as you roll your eyes); the Finale a quick, fleeting hornpipe.

Maurizio Pollini (1942 – 2024)

The great Italian pianist, Maurizio Pollini, died last week. I read the following in his NYT obituary as I was writing about Haydn and it seemed particularly apt.

Art itself, if it is really great, has a progressive aspect that is needed by a society, even if it seems absolutely useless in strictly practical terms,” Mr. Pollini told The Guardian in 2011. “In a way, art is a little like the dreams of a society. They seem to contribute little, but sleeping and dreaming are vitally important in that a human couldn’t live without them, in the same way a society cannot live without art.

Music - and by that I mean Haydn and Schnittke, happy and sad – like art and poetry and literature, isn’t a kind of condiment we add to give life a little flavor. Just as you could probably get all your nutrients from eating vitamin and fiber pellets, never eating real food, to do so would not be living. We need art in our life. It is a basic ingredient in being human.

David Yang, Artistic Director

Maurizio Pollini playing
my favorite piano concerto: Beethoven 4.

Claudio Abbado on the podium
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