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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

The Wit and Wisdom of Joseph Haydn

The music of Joseph Haydn is a cornerstone of the western tradition. His symphonies, string quartets, masses and oratorios are among the gems of the musical canon and it’s unthinkable to imagine our musical heritage without him. He was born in 1732 and managed over his long life to become the most admired composer in Europe. He died in Vienna in 1809 at the age of 77.

Guttenbrun: Joseph Haydn c. 1770 (painted 1791)

For the majority of his working life, Haydn was employed - either in practice or in name only - by the Esterházy dynasty, a noble family of princes whose properties included a palace in Eisenstadt, south of Vienna, and a magnificent new palace (called Esterháza) east of the Neusiedler See, near the present border between Austria and Hungary. From the 1780s his music and reputation spread across Europe, and the sheer quantity of music he composed is staggering. The listing of his works - just their titles - in the print edition new Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians takes an amazing 59 pages.


Haydn was at times given to the exercise of a wicked sense of humour. In this post we’ll take some time to hear the musical fruits of Haydn’s wit, and the wisdom which tempered it.

Let’s start with some music Haydn wrote in 1774. This was originally composed as incidental music to a comic play called Il distratto (The Confused Man), which was performed at the Esterházy palace by a troupe of touring players. Haydn’s delightful overture and entr’actes for this performance were soon after compiled into a symphony, now known as his symphony no 60, and it still bears the title of the play - Il distratto - as its nickname. Most unusually, the theatrical origins of the music resulted in the symphony having not three or four movements, but six.

The first movement of the symphony started life as the play’s overture. After a slow introduction, which is clearly designed to make the audience settle down and pay attention, there’s a fast section which is full of Haydn’s characteristic wit and good humour. There’s also a phrase which gets stuck on a single chord and peters out, clearly a reference to the absent-minded title character who can’t remember what he was going to say next. The first time this happens is just before the two-minute mark. There’s also a weird moment where the music goes completely off the rails harmonically, doubtless for the same reason. [listen]

There are comic touches in the next four movements which are rather subtle on a musical level - irregular phrase lengths, for example - but the silliest moment of all comes in the brief sixth and final movement. The orchestra dives headlong into a wild prestissimo only to stop after a few moments so that the violins can check their tuning. Good thing they do, because their G strings have all been tuned down to F and need to be corrected before they can go on. One imagines that by this point in the play the night was becoming pretty farcical. [listen]

A few years after writing the music to Il distratto, Haydn wrote a Mass for the chapel of the Brothers of Mercy in Eisenstadt. This Mass has two names - its proper name is the Missa brevis Sancti Joannis de Deo. Missa brevis simply means short mass, and Sancti Joannis de Deo is Latin for St John of God, the sixteenth century Portuguese-born founder of the Brothers of Mercy, to whom the Mass is dedicated. The Mass’s other name is “Little Organ Mass”. The “organ” bit refers to an organ solo in one of the movements, and the “little” distinguishes it from another mass of Haydn’s with an organ solo, known as the “Great” Organ Mass.

The Little Organ Mass contains what is to our ears one of the weirdest movements in all church music. The Gloria movement (one of the longer texts in the Ordinary of the Mass) in this Mass takes less than a minute to perform because Haydn divides the text into four sections and has them sung simultaneously by the four parts of the choir. This means the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses are all singing different words at the same time, coming together only for the final line. As you’ll hear, the text is pretty unintelligible, but this isn’t an isolated example of such “telescoping” of the text in sacred music. Other composers are known to have done it as well, although it was frowned upon by the church authorities for obvious reasons.

Some writers conjecture that Haydn did this because the Mass was performed in a freezing church in winter and everyone wanted to get home as soon as possible (there’s a bit of telescoping in the longer Credo movement as well). Whatever the reason, some other composers, including Haydn’s brother Michael, are known to have arranged the Gloria movement of this Mass later in the century so that it was extended, thus making the words clearer. However Haydn’s original - which takes less time to perform than it does to read my explanation of it - is a hoot. In this recording of the complete Mass, the Gloria starts at 1’54. [listen]

The following decade, in 1788, Haydn composed three symphonies for Claude-François-Marie Rigoley, Comte d’Ogny, in Paris. These are now known as his symphonies 90, 91 and 92. The first of these, no 90, is one of Haydn’s brightest and most engaging symphonies. It’s certainly one of my faves.

Claude-François-Marie Rigoley, Comte D'Ogny

Bright and breezy though it is, symphony no 90 doesn’t contain anything particularly funny until its fourth and final movement. This starts off with typical Haydenesque high spirits which cleverly establishes two things in the listener’s mind. One of these is the main melody of the movement, while the other is a rhythmic figure which was commonly used by Haydn in writing for trumpets and timpani.

This rhythmic figure is heard innocuously at first, in exactly the sort of context one would expect it in Haydn: it accompanies more important material happening elsewhere. However it seems to grow in importance until in the second half of the movement it seems as if Haydn abbreviates the conclusion and brings it all to an abrupt close with the whole orchestra playing this rhythm. Silence ensues and it sounds like the symphony has finished; in fact I’ve seen on a number of occasions audiences burst into applause at this point. But it’s all a joke. Haydn has written four bars of silence for the whole orchestra, after which the violins creep in a semitone higher and the oboe plays the trumpets’ rhythm all on its own. If ever there was a musical way of poking your tongue out and saying “gotcha!”, this is it. But wait, there’s more! Haydn marks the second half of the movement to be repeated, which means the whole joke happens again. In my experience the audience often feels that this is the real ending and they burst into even louder applause than before - only to be fooled again.

Of course the inevitable happens. When the movement actually does come to an end the orchestra has by this time cried wolf one time too often. Many in the audience refuse to applaud until the conductor puts down the baton - and even then they’re not really sure.

This recording with the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle shows exactly what can happen in a live performance… [listen]

A couple of years later, Haydn went to London for the first of his two triumphant visits to the English capital. For each of these visits he composed six new symphonies, and these are now known collectively as his twelve “London” symphonies. In the first set (nos 93-98) probably the most famous is the so-called “Surprise” symphony, no 94. This work is known to German-speaking audiences as the symphony mit dem Paukenschlag - “with the timpani stroke”. This refers to the moment near the start of the slow movement when a loud chord interrupts the music, a loud chord which contains a loud strike on the timpani.

Here's a traditional performance of the second movement, with the famous “surprise” chord as Haydn wrote it. [listen]

The problem is, these days everyone knows what’s coming and that’s hardly a surprise. When he conducted Les Musiciens du Louvre in a live performance a few years ago, Marc Minkowski decided to recreate the spirit, if not the letter, of Haydn’s score… [listen]

This tune was well-known to European audiences within a remarkably short time of the symphony’s premiere in London in 1792, because the London symphonies were widely performed. Nine years later, in 1801, Haydn composed the second of his two marvellous late oratorios - The Seasons - and in this he indulges in a little self-quotation. In the first part, Spring, there’s an aria which describes the farmer ploughing his fields and whistling while he does so. Haydn gives the orchestra none other than that tune from the Surprise symphony to describe the farmer’s whistling, and he skilfully works it into the texture of the aria.

Interestingly Gottfried van Swieten, the person responsible for the text of The Seasons, thought this was somewhat tacky. One of Haydn’s early biographers wrote:

He tried to persuade Haydn to pick out in place of it a song from a really popular opera and named two or three operas himself. This demand was truly insulting; Haydn felt so and answered confidently, “I will change nothing! My Andante is as good and as well known as any song from any opera.” [listen]

Hardy: Joseph Haydn (1791)

In each of the next two examples of Haydn’s wit we’ll look at, he sailed very close to the wind, risking the offence of his social superiors. In taking these risks Haydn must have felt that his position was reasonably secure, but in the first example, which comes from very late in his life, it seems that he was doing little more than being naughty.

Near the end of his life - between 1796 and 1802 - Haydn wrote a remarkable series of six Masses for the Esterházy court. These Masses were written to celebrate the name day of the Princess Maria Hermenegilde (the wife of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II) in September each year. He started work of the second-last of these in July 1801 and it was finished in a little under seven weeks.

Vigée-Lebrun: Princess Maria Hermenegilde (1793)

By 1801 Haydn was an international celebrity. His symphonies and string quartets were played all over Europe and he had two years before caused a sensation with premiere of his masterpiece, The Creation. He decided in the Mass of 1801 to indulge in what one writer has called one his most “incautious musical pranks.” The Gloria movement (when it wasn’t compressed into less than a minute!) was traditionally set as a large movement in three sections in the classical Mass. The middle section was slower and more reverent as it set the portion of the text praying for mercy.

In this Mass Haydn seems to forget to slow down for the middle section, and the bass soloist romps straight in with the words that would normally start it: Qui tollis peccata mundi, after which the choir puts the brakes on with the text miserere nobis (have mercy on us) as if they’re apologising. This is bizarre enough, but in addition to this the bass soloist is introduced by an unmistakable quotation in the horns from the Adam and Eve love duet in The Creation. The bass soloist actually sings the same melody. This has given the Mass the nickname it’s had ever since - the Creation Mass. Knowing how devout Princess Marie was, Haydn was being very naughty indeed.

In this performance (with score) of the complete Gloria movement, the passage in question starts at 3’05. [listen]

Princess Maria’s reaction is not recorded. However the Empress Marie Therese, wife of Emperor Francis II, was a keen collector of Haydn’s music. Before she would accept a copy of this Mass into her collection she ordered Haydn to recompose the offending passage, which he duly did. Interestingly, though, the tempo “mistake” remains; the bass still sings the music which should be slow at a fast tempo, and the choir still seems to apologise. All Haydn did was remove the Creation quote in the horns (replacing it with a banal solo for bassoon) as well as rewriting the bass solo entry.

It was nearly three decades before this, however, in 1772, that Haydn composed the work which most famously demonstrates both his wit and his wisdom, and again this involved an element of risk.

Haydn worked under a number of the Esterházy princes, but the music-loving Prince Nikolaus I was the one with whom he had the warmest and most productive relationship. The home base of the court was the palace in Eisenstadt, and it was there that not only the musicians lived - including Haydn - but also their wives and families. Each summer, when the Prince was in residence at the new palace, the musicians went with him, but not their families. In 1772 the Prince delayed returning to Eisenstadt at the end of the summer and the musical troops were becoming seriously restless. Haydn was asked to mediate, something far more difficult to do in those days than now, of course.

Prince Nikolaus Esterházy I

Haydn’s solution was ingenious. Instead of just asking the Prince if the court could go back to Eisenstadt, he made the point in a new symphony which was performed at one of their regular concerts for the Prince. The last movement of this symphony has become famous, and it’s given the symphony its nickname - the “Farewell” symphony - but the whole piece is pretty amazing for its time. For a start, the first movement is angry - very angry. In the remote and rarely-used key of F sharp minor, this music is unpredictable, jagged and unsettled. It’s also almost entirely devoid of any real melody. It’s not until the development section that something you could call a real tune is heard. Introducing a melody in the development section which is not heard elsewhere in the movement was completely unprecedented. It underscores the absence of such melodies in the exposition and development sections, which are confined to angular - and usually descending - arpeggios, coloured occasionally by crunching discords. In addition, the inner parts of the orchestra in the movement are obsessively syncopated - playing between the beats - which enhances the whole feeling of restlessness. These guys want to go home!

The slow movement which follows is deceptively gentle, starting innocently enough but again moving into discordant territory, and containing a lot of syncopation. This is followed by a minuet and trio in the almost unheard-of key of F sharp major. In the tuning systems of Haydn’s day this would have sounded unsettlingly out of tune, and Haydn seems to emphasise the notes which would make the musically-astute Prince squirm in the audience. Again, the minuet is marked by moments of syncopation. The trio has a nasty little outburst of the minor mode when it’s least expected; it says. “I’m smiling on the outside but underneath... you don’t want to know”. Nothing feels comfortable in this symphony; it’s very sinister in intent despite the polite exterior.

The most radical of all, though, is the fourth and final movement, which starts off at a cracking pace in the home key of F sharp minor. It’s marked by sudden loud outbursts and an overall mood of unmitigated rage. It gives every appearance of being in sonata form, with a repeated exposition, and a development section which is uncannily reminiscent of the finales of Mozart’s later angry G minor symphonies - nos 25 and 40.

The recapitulation starts and it looks like all will end as expected, albeit bleakly. However right at the moment we anticipate the final statement of the theme and the conclusion of the movement it stops in its tracks. The tempo slows to a leisurely Adagio, and the key changes to the major. This is completely unexpected, but not as unexpected as what is about to happen. Haydn wrote this slow ending in such a way as the instruments one by one ran out of music. He required fewer and fewer musicians as the music progressed, and as each musician ran out of music, he was instructed to blow out his candle and leave. Eventually the stage was deserted but for two violinists - in the premiere these were Haydn himself and his concertmaster Tomasini. When they ended the symphony alone, they too blew out their candles and left. Without saying a word which might cause offence to their employer, the musicians made it clear they wanted to leave.

Prince Nikolaus took the hint. The next day the court prepared to move back to Eisenstadt.

This video shows a modern performance of the symphony with the musicians exiting at the end. By all means watch the entire symphony; the finale commences at 18’30. [listen]

It’s hard to believe that as recently as the 1950s and 60s, Haydn was viewed by much of the musical world as an inferior, simplistic composer. Thanks to conductors who championed his music, such as Sir Thomas Beecham and Antal Doráti, and musicologists who gave us the background to his life and work, like H C Robbins Landon, Haydn is now regarded as he should be, as one of the towering masters of western music - a towering master who could smile when he wanted to.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in January, 2005.

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