Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More thoughts on Haydn

I'm entering the final stage of my trek through Haydn's symphonies, in the early 80's now, and the landmarks are starting to seem familiar as those works that are better known - the big, public works for Paris and London after the years of splendid isolation at Esterhazy - loom into view.


It's a source of continuing amazement to me that there's such a wealth of imagination throughout these works, hardly a hint of routine. If these later symphonies, composed for very different circumstances than the earlier ones, seem less obviously questing in the search for innovation, that's not a reflection of any dimming of inspiration, rather perhaps the sign of a composer with absolute mastery of his medium writing for an audience less committed, and hence perhaps less open to overt experimentation, than the prince for whom he composed and performed every day for so many years. It's one of the things I admire moist about Haydn: his ability to write something that can engage on both a casual and deeper level - none of the schism between art and entertainment that we worry about so much these days here. And yet surprises abound; I think of the opening of the Symphony No.73, which sounds like nothing so much as an anticipation of minimalism. And where does the extraordinary moment in Symphony No.85 originate, when the raging fire of the Farewell Symphony suddenly erupts into the surrounding grandeur?

It always surprises me that not more interest is shown in things like this: Ian MacDonald's exhaustive unraveling of the web of self-quotation in Shostakovich is all too readily derided by academia (mainly because he was seen as not having the right credentials, not being a paid-up member of their club). The greybeards pore over every detail of a composer's life and technique, but can't abide the thought that elements from life might intrude on theory. Why did Haydn feel the need to insert the memory of something written over a decade previously here? It was highly unlikely that many, if anyone, would recognise the reference. What private thoughts determined this strange, disturbing intrusion?

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