Haydn's Sensibility

By Webster, James | Studia Musicologica, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Haydn's Sensibility


Webster, James, Studia Musicologica


Abstract: Recent interpretations of both Haydn's personality (as a man) and his musical style (or 'persona') have focused on the two opposed categories earnestness and wit. The present essay adds a third category on both sides of the equation: sensibility (German Empfindsamkeit), and argues that it is equally important. The various meanings of sensibility are laid out and their applicability to Haydn discussed, including his rich and varied relationships with lovers and intimate friends. The problematics of the possible correlations between an artist's personality and his style are discussed; it is argued that, contrary to recent theories of their separation into different domains, these are in fact closely related. Sensibility was a central aspect of mid- and late 18th-century aesthetics, both in ideas about ideal human behavior, and in prose fiction, opera and drama, etc. - as well as instrumental music (Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach). In Haydn's case, not surprisingly, it has so far been located in genres destined primarily for private use: keyboard music and lieder; this is illustrated by an analysis and interpretation of "Das Leben ist ein Traum" (Hob. XXVIa:21; published 1784). In such works we may imagine Haydn as 'speaking to' the dedicatee of the work, as well as the sympathetic listener. However, sensibility is also an important aspect of style in the string quartet and symphony, where it has almost never been considered relevant. Examples are discussed in the slow movements from the quartet op. 76 no. 5 and the symphonies nos. 75, 88, 92, 98, 99, and 102. It is argued that the old notion of 'Classical style' (fortunately now on the decline), with its rigid demarcation of 'high' instrumental genres from both vocal music (Haydn's operas) and earlier instrumental Empfindsamkeit (Emanuel Bach), was the primary reason that scholars and listeners have until now remained unmoved by Haydn's sensibility.

Keywords: Haydn, sensibility, style, personality, persona

Although this essay is concerned primarily with Haydn's musical style, I must begin with a few remarks about his personality. In agreement with certain observers of his own time, such as the Swedish diplomat Fredrik Samuel Silverstolpe, I have for many years interpreted his personality in terms of a duality between earnestness and wit.1 Haydn was devout and dedicated to the Virgin, and especially in his late years a leading exponent of the musical sublime; at the same time he was often high-spirited, jovial, even joking. However, it must be remembered that wit connotes not only humor, but intelligence, inventiveness, and so forth; and that in the 18th century the concept humor itself was much broader than it is today, including for example the 'four humors' or temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic.2 Be that as it may, I have recently come to believe that to frame the matter solely in terms of this single binary opposition underplays a third, equally important aspect of Haydn's personality: his sensibility.3

The word "sensibility" has numerous different meanings, of which the relevant ones in this context are:4

[1] mental or emotional responsiveness toward the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others

[2] receptiveness to impression, acuteness of feeling

Closely related is "sensitivity," which often functions as a synonym for "sensibility" in senses [1] and [2] above, but also has the additional, negative meaning:

[3] quickness to take offense; touchiness

Both words are in turn related to "sentiment":

[4] tender, affectionate feeling

and to "sentimentality":

[5] affected, inappropriate, or excessive emotionality

All these words derive from sense (a capacity to appreciate or understand; recognition or perception through the senses or the intellect) and therefore ultimately from the Latin sensus, past participle of sentire, "to feel." (Just as in English these words overlap in meaning, so do the equivalent German words Empfindsamkeit, Empfindlichkeit, Sensibilität, Sentimentalität, although the correspondences between the two languages are not always consistent.

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