Absent Father

By Hewett, Ivan | Musical Times, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Absent Father


Hewett, Ivan, Musical Times


IVAN HEWETT relates changing historical perspectives of Haydn to the composer's mercurial presence within his music

'IN ORDER TO rethink Haydn, the stubborn veneer of nineteenth-century habits of reception, which have extended well into this century, must be dissolved and scraped away'. So says Leon Botstein in the opening essay in this collection of Haydn studies. Those habits showed Haydn as `the law-giver of classicism', both touchstone and root of all that came after. It was because Haydn was the `unmoved mover', untroubled by the dark emotions that trouble Mozart and Schubert, that his works could act as models of formal purity. Purity of form went with purity of heart - in fact a recurrent strain in Haydn appreciation in the nineteenth century was that he had the innocence either of the child or of the old man (or both, according to Wagner, who referred to Haydn's instrumental music as having `the childishness of a greybeard born'). That image, though, shows that the nineteenth-century image of Haydn couldn't have been quite as unambiguous and rigid as Botstein seems to think. Children aren't just innocent, they're also naughty and skittish - and didn't Keats once say that Haydn seems like a child because `one never knows what he will do next'? This hardly sits well with the image of Haydn the law-giver.

So perhaps Haydn has always been a puzzle, even in the century that wanted to make him puzzle-free. Until recently there was a very mundane reason for Haydn's mysteriousness, namely that so much of the man and his music was hidden from view. Before Robbins Landon began his researches, only a tiny fraction of his work was known. Then, as the work and the composer was brought to light in the 1950s and 60s, it seemed that at last we were being given Haydn `warts and all', a vivid and unidealised portrait which we could then interpret. But in fact, even as that image was appearing, a crust of opinion and interpretation began to form around it. Some of it came from Robbins Landon himself, some from other writers who relied on his researches, such as Rosen. And it's really that crust, rather than any lingering trace of what Bostein calls `nineteenth-century habits of reception', that this book wants to scrape away. The particular aspects of the `received opinion' that this book challenges are: (1) that Haydn thought of himself first and foremost as an instrumental composer (and therefore we should too); (2) that the galant symphonies of the 1770s and 1780s are a regrettable regression from the daring Sturm und Drang symphonies that preceded them; (3) that he is 'amiable' and 'witty' rather than deep; (4) that Haydn's career is a linear ascent to mastery marked above all by the 'breakthrough' of the op.33 quartets (this contradicts no.2, reminding us that every age's composite picture of Haydn has at least one internal contradiction); (5) that Haydn's operas are secondrate, largely because they were conceived for the peculiar, narrow world of Esterhazy rather than the larger world of the big-city opera house; (6) that Haydn's trios give scant regard to the independence of the violin and even less to the cello.

The question must be why exactly it matters to challenge these judgements. Is it to correct and deepen our appreciation of Haydn now? Or is it rather to do with casting off unconscious anachronisms in our view of Haydn, so as to recapture the importance and value he had in his own times? Botstein, in his penetrating essay on the nineteenth-century reception of Haydn, seems to take the latter view `When we try to understand Haydn from the perspective of the 18th century rather than the 19th, we rapidly realise that Haydn's music carried for its listeners and contemporaries gravity, philosophical depth, passion, and complex beauty.' However there's more than a hint that we should take our cue from those contemporaries, purge our minds of nineteenthcentury preconceptions, and restore in our own listening all those wonderful qualities.

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