Haydn – the poor man’s Mozart?
In the two centuries since his death Joseph Haydn has been scandalously underrated, argues Richard Wigmore.
In December 1790, shortly before Haydn‘s departure for England and the greatest adventure of his life, he, Mozart and the impresario Johann Peter Salomon met for a dinner at a Viennese tavern. The mood was convivial, though Mozart, the seasoned, cosmopolitan traveller, expressed concern for his 58 year-old friend in London. ‘You have too little experience of the great world, and you speak too few languages.’ To which Haydn countered, with magnificent, ingenuous confidence: ‘My language is understood throughout the whole world.’
Haydn’s famed modesty, noted by several contemporaries, never precluded an acute sense of his own worth. In the final decades of the 18th century his music, far more than Mozart’s, was indeed ‘understood throughout the whole world.’ Haydn’s reputation, kick-started by the dissemination of his early symphonies and string quartets, had been growing steadily since the early 1760s. By 1790 he was an international superstar, feted from St Petersburg to Cadiz, from Edinburgh to Naples as publishers fell over each other to acquire his latest symphonies, quartets and keyboard works. No composer, not even Handel, had ever been as widely celebrated in his own lifetime. After the two triumphant London visits, The Creation, his joyous celebration of an unsullied universe that contrasted poignantly with the turbulence of the Napoleonic wars, would set the final seal on his fame.
Yet even before Haydn’s death in 1809, as Napoleon’s troops were bombarding Vienna, Beethoven and Mozart (who towards the end of his life had often been branded a ‘difficult’ composer) were usurping his pre-eminence. Although his quartets, late symphonies and oratorios never fell out of favour, Haydn was increasingly seen as the first and least in an evolutionary chain that culminated in Beethoven. This progressive notion of musical history was famously enshrined in an 1810 essay by that weaver of fantastic tales, ETA Hoffmann. Haydn’s compositions expressed a “childlike mood of cheerfulness… a life of eternal youth, abundant in love and bliss, as though before the Fall”. (The epithets ‘kindlich’, – childlike – and ‘heiter’ – serere, or cheerful – would run like a mantra through 19th and early 20th century writings on Haydn.) Like so many in his century, Hoffman was evidently deaf to the turbulence, pathos and bleakness of works like the Trauer and Passione symphonies (Nos 44 and 49), the F sharp minor String Quartet, Op 50 No 4, and the F minor keyboard variations. Mozart moved beyond Haydn – a position he has never relinquished in the popular imagination – to lead ‘deep into the spirit realm’. Finally Beethoven invoked awe, fear, and terror, awakening ‘the infinite yearning which is the essence of Romanticism’.