Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Haydn as 'Minimalist': Rethinking Exoticism in the Trios of the 1760s and 1770s

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

Haydn as 'Minimalist': Rethinking Exoticism in the Trios of the 1760s and 1770s

Article excerpt

In his 1770 review of five newly published Haydn symphonies, Johann Adam Hiller reported that a fellow Leipzig composer had recently attempted to improve one of the symphonies under review, No. 28 in A (composed 1765),1 by eliminating some of its "extravagances." According to Hiller, the unnamed composer succeeded in putting Haydn's symphony into a more "bearable form." Though he did not specify the nature or extent of these improvements - nor has the unauthorized revision since been turned up - Hiller was quite candid in his review about what needed improving. Noting that the symphony's 6/8 finale had been omitted from the Parisian print, he grumbled: "would that instead one had suppressed the foolish trio, together with the minuet!"2

The North German disdain for minuet movements in symphonies is well documented, and has been the subject of several recent studies. As Gretchen Wheelock explains, German critics felt that minuets were foppish, frivolous, and in any case too French for the increasingly serious and political genre of the symphony.3 Even caricatures like the brazen minuet of Symphony No. 28 with its unison bariolage, wide leaps, and unusually swift Allegro molto tempo, were regarded with an air of suspicion: as one critic put it, "minuets simply recall at the wrong time the realm of dance, and thus misuse music."4 But Hiller's dismissal of the "foolish trio" (das alberne Trio) from Symphony No. 28 goes beyond this general distaste for minuets in symphonies.

It is not hard to imagine what might have bothered Hiller about the trio - it is one of the strangest Haydn ever composed. Scored for string quartet and in the key of A Minor, it creates a marked contrast with the minuet's bright proceedings through its restricted melodic and harmonic oscillations, persistent double-stop accompaniment, rising melodic cadences, and bare-bones texture. Most striking of all, its initial two-bar motive, based on a descending diminished fourth (C-Gsharp), is repeated in literal and varied forms with an almost obsessive regularity. This has the effect of blurring formal boundaries at the moment of reprise. The triple repetition of the two-bar motive (in varied form) in bars 9-14 creates a strong need for harmonic motion. Haydn at last signals this motion by raising the G in the second violin to G-sharp in bar 14, suggesting that bars 15-16 function as the phrase-ending half-cadence. But these bars are equivalent to bars 1 and 2 - in fact, the entire eight-bar opening phrase is recapitulated verbatim, but starting two bars early. In a compositional sleight-of-hand, motivic reprise is disjunct from structural reprise; put differently, bars 15-16 may be considered functionally multivalent.5

Hiller's dismissal of the "foolish trio" from Symphony No. 28 serves to identify an aesthetic gap between this particular trio and what he perceived as standard practice. Modern critics have felt a similar gap, often ascribing the trio's strangeness to its supposed origins in an 'ethnic' musical style. H. C. Robbins Landon, for instance, writes that the trio "is like a lost Balkan tune sounding from far across the puszta; it is Gypsy music and has in it the dark feeling of eastern Europe."6 This notion rests in part on a longstanding conviction in the literature that the trio is based on a folk melody. As early as 1875, Haydn's biographer C. F. Pohl described the melody as "a melancholy, apparently Slavic folk tune."7 A few years later, in his influential monograph A Croatian Composer, William Hadow included the melody as one example of the many "Slavonic" tunes Haydn supposedly adapted for use in his art music, tunes which Hadow believed were indicators of Haydn's Croatian heritage.8 Hadow's thesis has come under scrutiny, of course, but the notion that the trio is based on a folk melody has continued to be influential.9 David Cushman has even suggested a possible source, a Nativity song found in a 1680 Austrian manuscript.10 The song, Gensy trpel zanas spasy, bears some striking resemblances to Haydn's melody, including the prominent use of the descending diminished fourth and the use of repetitive short phrases within a restricted melodic compass (Example 2). …

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