Haydn - the poor man’s Mozart?

Richard Wigmore
Wednesday, February 18, 2015

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’. 

By the mid-19th century the image was fixed of Haydn the blithe precursor, who ‘invented’ the symphony and string quartet for others to build on: a naively optimistic figure, at once childlike and avuncular, in an age that revered heroes, rebels, and tragic victims, preferably all three rolled into one. The once-affectionate nickname of ‘Papa’, which even Haydn’s parrot caught on to, was now tinged with condescension. He always had his admirers among musicians, notably the tradition-revering Brahms, who allegedly exclaimed of the glorious Largo from Symphony No 88, ‘I want my Ninth Symphony to sound like this’, and near the end of his life remarked of Haydn, ‘What a man! Beside him we are just wretches.’ More typical of the century was Robert Schumann's review of a Haydn symphony in 1841. ‘One can learn nothing more from him. He is like a regular house friend, always gladly and respectfully received, but no longer of deeper interest for our age.’ Wagner, who on occasion waxed enthusiastic over Haydn's late symphonies, delivered an even more withering verdict: ‘Beethoven was to Haydn as the born adult to the man in his second childhood.’ 

Mozart's reputation, even at its lowest, was shored up by the ‘demonic’ strain in Don Giovanni (the Mozart opera that haunted the 19th century above all others) and the D minor Piano Concerto, K466, and by the mingled virtuosity and surface prettiness of a work like the Coronation Concerto, K537. An age that placed a premium on the confessional, the erotic and the apocalyptic heard in Haydn's music only a playfulness devoid of deeper emotional and narrative significance: the music of a man who, in contrast to the mercurial, ultimately ‘tragic’ Mozart and the scowling, convention-defying Beethoven, had spent his career placidly in the service of the discredited aristocracy.


Only after the First World War did public perception of Haydn slowly begin to shift, in part because of a wider reaction against the febrile, neurasthenic atmosphere of late Romanticism. Crucial in the English-speaking world was the passionate advocacy of Sir Donald Francis Tovey, in a brilliant article on the string quartets for Cobbett’s Cyclopedia of Chamber Music and still a widely read series of notes on the late symphonies. Tovey’s Haydn was a supreme original, an intrepid adventurer, heedless of ‘rules’, who traded in the inspired-unexpected and raised wit to the level of the sublime; a composer of emotional profundity who, (in the slow introduction of Symphony No 104), ‘could strike one of those tragic notes of which [he] knows the depth as well or better than the gloomiest artists’. Here was a Haydn who would not be cowed by Mozart, Beethoven, or anyone else.

Tovey's revolutionary understanding of Haydn coloured, and still colours, the attitudes of later generations of scholars and music lovers. Yet it was with good reason that he dubbed Haydn 'the Inaccessible'. Between the wars whole swathes of his music, especially from the early and middle years, were not even in print. Even repertoire pieces like the ‘London’ Symphonies were only published in corrupt 19th century editions that excised or smoothed out many of Haydn's wittiest and most original strokes - the 'normalisation' of the wrong-harmony joke in the Trio of the Clock, No 101 , is one example among many. It was only after the Second World War, thanks above all to the efforts of Jens Peter Larsen and that prodigious one-man Haydn industry HC Robbins Landon, that most of his huge oeuvre, including the hitherto unknown operas, became available in a reliable critical edition. Radio and recordings have opened up whole areas of Haydn's output that lay unperformed since the 18th century. Today, we can hear on CD over 90 per cent of his works, more than anyone bar Haydn himself could have heard during his own lifetime. Even the trios involving that strange hybrid instrument the baryton, a kind of bass viol with a harp extension that became a curious obsession of Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy - ave now been recorded complete. 

In his anniversary year Haydn's stock stood higher than at any time since his death. For music lovers on his wavelength, the boundless inventiveness and sheer speed of thought of his greatest quartets, symphonies and keyboard trios (still among his best-kept secrets) exert a unique fascination. Haydn's delight in paradox and ambiguity, his mastery of subtle and complex compositional games, have also made him a particular favourite of composers, among them Robin Holloway and John McCabe. Even more than Mozart, he has gained hugely from historically aware performances, usually on 'period' instruments, that seek to recreate the colour, balance and articulation of the late 18th century. As a result his works have sounded still more fiercely original, certainly less comfortable, with their un-Mozartian disruptions, and asymmetries relished rather than smoothed out.

Yet even today Haydn aficionados still tend to speak of their man with a hint of defensiveness or special pleading, aware that for the wider musical public Mozart still wins hands down. His finest instrumental works, for all their intellectual and expressive virtuosity, have relatively little of Mozart's sensuous allure. Nor can Haydn's life begin to compete with Mozart's in romantic appeal. He was far from the naive, unreflective countryman of popular myth. His family, although several notches lower down the social scale than Mozart's, were not even 'peasants', as is commonly supposed. A respected master wheelwright, his father even became the elected magistrate (Marktrichter) of the village of Rohrau, some 25 miles east of Vienna, where the composer was born in 1732. But since the 19th century Haydn has been the victim of his genial, un-neurotic persona, and of a working life spent in seclusion as Kapellmeister to the Hungarian Esterhazy family until the two London sojourns of 1791-92 and 1794-95: no scurrilous letters, no rebellion against the status quo, precious little scandal or intrigue (the odd mistress was de rigueur in 18th century court circles), no ‘stranger in black’ or unfinished Requiem, no tragically early grave. Haydn's life, unlike Mozart's, has defied glamorisation. 

Many contemporary witnesses testify to Haydn's predominant cheerfulness. The music historian Charles Burney, who befriended the composer in London, remarked how his ‘natural, unassuming and pleasing character’ had endeared him to the whole nation. That he was affable, considerate to his fellow musicians (among whom he was always popular) and a genial father figure to his pupils is irrefutable. Modesty (which the Romantics twisted into a cringing meekness), love of order and a devout, unquestioning, yet never dogmatic, faith were instilled into him from childhood. Haydn's sense of fun and mischief, and his fondness for practical jokes, are chronicled in various boyhood escapades, as when he lopped off the pigtail of a fellow choirboy in St Stephen's Cathedral. Even in old age his character retained what his early biographer Albert Christoph Dies dubbed 'a genial, witty, teasing strain'. 


Yet Haydn’s personality, like his music, was less bucolically uncomplicated than the 19th century liked to maintain. His humour could have a wry, acerbic edge, as revealed in his London notebooks (full of sharp observations on English customs) and his letters to his friend and confidante Maria Anna von Genzinger, wife of Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy's physician. With or without the consolation of his Italian mistress, the soprano Luigia Polzelli, Haydn must often have felt isolated and embittered in his marriage to an ill-educated, bigoted woman of whom he remarked 'It's all the same to her whether her husband is a cobbler or an artist'. (When Frau Haydn died in 1800, one of his friends reported that the composer was ‘writing with new zeal, since he has had the good luck to lose his unpleasant wife.’) From his letters to Maria Anna von Genzinger and Luigia Polzelli we know, too, that he was a prey to loneliness and depression. Indeed, by the late 1780s, the most celebrated composer of the age had come to loathe his existence as a provincial Kapellmeister in the remote Hungarian marshes. Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy's death in September 1790 did not come a moment too soon. Just as the amiable 'Papa' image - Haydn as lovable musical grandfather - is an absurd simplification, so the famed "naivety" of his music is deceptive. The themes of his greatest instrumental works - the opening movements of the Drumroll Symphony, No 103, and the Quartet Op 76 No 1 are two examples among many - may exude an air of frolicking pastoral innocence, as Mozart's suave, vocally inspired melodies rarely do. But Haydn's treatment of his guileless tunes is that of a supremely sophisticated, self-aware composer: a master of subtlety, surprise and subterfuge - not least in his play with silence and unexpected phrase lengths - who exploits the comic-dramatic potential of his themes with breath-taking harmonic and contrapunctal legerdemain. In the late symphonies and string quartets especially, joyous, open-air exuberance typically coexists with intense cerebration. Not for nothing has Robin Holloway dubbed Haydn 'music's supreme intellectual'. 

He is also arguably the composer most likely to provoke a smile or chuckle in players and audiences. The Romantics had little time for humour in music; and even in Haydn's lifetime po-faced critics, usually from Berlin or Hamburg, accused his early string quartets and symphonies of tasteless 'comic fooling'. Sometimes his famed humour can be bizarre or (in, say, the programmatic Symphony No 60, II Distratto) naively farcical. Often he delights in sudden incongruous contrasts, as in the gigantic bassoon fart that shatters the ethereal atmosphere of the Largo of Symphony No 93 (who could imagine Mozart doing this?). Even Haydn's sacred music was not immune, as when he roguishly set the "Qui tollis" of one of his late Masses to the strains of Adam and Eve's jolly duet from The Creation. The Empress Marie Therese, normally one of Haydn's warmest admirers, was unamused. 

On a higher plane, Haydn's wit is about the manipulation and thwarting of the listener's expectations. In his minuets he often lulls you into a false sense of security with regular four-bar phrases before pulling the rug from under your feet. In his finales he loves to keep you guessing as the exact moment of a theme's return, often toying with the theme's first two or three notes. He carries this favourite 'upbeat joke' to extremes in Symphony No 93 and, even more zanily, the quicksilver finale of the great C major Piano Trio, No 27, where clownish contrasts of register enhance the comic mayhem. Elsewhere he delights in teasing the listener as to whether a piece has ended or not, most famously in the Joke Quartet, Op 33 No 2, and the outrageous, clap-if-you-dare false ending of Symphony No 90, more subtly in, say, the B flat String Quartet, Op 50 No 1. 

Haydn's comic subversiveness, his supreme mastery of complex cerebral games, can still blind listeners to the full expressive range of his music, as Mozart's exquisite grace once obscured his power. His is an essentially optimistic, Apollonian art, with (in some of the later symphonies and quartets) roots in Croatian and Austro-Hungarian folksong. Yet his music can be austere, acerbic, on occasion - notably in some of the minor-key symphonies of the years around 1770 - of an almost shocking violence. The C minor Sonata, No 20, of 1771 - Haydn's Appassionata - begins in lyrical pathos and ends in tragic passion. Mozart wrote nothing more moving for the keyboard. 

In his lifetime Haydn's music was celebrated not only for its wit, inventive brilliance and effortless fusion of the 'popular' and 'learned' styles, but also for its emotional and philosophical depth. The groping, twisting 'Chaos' prelude to The Creation, the most harmonically audacious music of the whole 18th century, is an extreme and unique case. Using a more 'normal' language, the Seven Last Words and the visionary, hymn-like slow movements of the late string quartets and Masses, where Haydn's religious impulse is coloured by a Romantic sense of the sublime and the ineffable, should scotch once and for all the notion that he was incapable of expressing the most exalted spiritual states. 

Haydn's questing, rigorously argumentative art rarely admits of the operatically inspired lyrical sweetness and almost voluptuous pathos with which Mozart captivates the most casual listener - though we might be thankful that this has at least saved him from mobile ringtones and kitsch merchandise. Yet if Haydn must always yield to the Salzburger in popular appeal, the power of his greatest music, its profundity and passion as well as its wit and exuberance, remains undimmed. Indeed, in our fractured, neurotic age, Haydn's humane, life-affirming vision, expressed with consumate mastery of the sonata style he did more man anyone to perfect, can refresh and uplift the spirit more, perhaps, than any other composer.

Three Must Hear Haydn Sets

Symphonies Nos 91 & 92. Scena di Berenice 

Fink; FBO/Jacobs 

Harmonia Mundi HMX296 1849 (5/05R)

Two of Haydn’s wittiest symphonies played with a sense of joy and carefree intensity, and the 1795 Scena di Berenice sung with searing drama by Bernarda Fink.

Read review

The Creation (sung in English)

Sols; Gabrieli Consort & Players/McCreesh

Archiv 477 7361AH2 (3/08)

A Gramophone Award-winner, McCreesh fields a crack team of soloists in an exhilarating reading of Haydn’s great oratorio.

Read review

Piano Trios, Vol 1

Florestan Trio

Hyperion CDA67719 (4/09)

Expressive and intuitive, the fabulous Florestans identify fully with the emotional scale of these trios, including the Gypsy Rondo – perhaps the best-known of Haydn’s ‘best-kept secrets’.

Read review

This article was first published in the June 2009 issue of Gramophone.

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