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haydn1I was reading an article this week in the London Times about the effort to “revitalize” the image of Franz Joseph Haydn in this, the 200th anniversary of the year of his death:

We love composers who rebel, who stick it to their masters. We applaud Mozart for telling his patron Prince-Arch-bishop Colloredo of Salzburg where to stuff it, after the young composer was upbraided for his court truancy. We extol Beethoven for turning his backside to the Emperor of Austria on a chance encounter in the town of Teplitz.

For us today artistic autonomy is everything. And the story of how this came about, of how the artist overthrew the intolerable tyranny of the patron, excites us. We see their acts of rudeness as progress. As successful breakouts from the prisons of 18th-century life. As attempts to liberate art as well as the artist from subservience to the cloth-eared aristocracy. After Mozart and Beethoven, the toffs would bow to the artist, not the artist to the toffs.

It might be why Haydn gets such a raw deal. Musically he was a revolutionary. But socially, he bowed and scraped and grovelled. Yet so did most of the great Baroque composers. Bach became servant to the town of Leipzig and various dukes at Weimar (where he was imprisoned) and at Coethen (where he was sacked). Handel laboured under the Dukes of Chandos and at the court of Hanover, Purcell at the court of three British monarchs. The story of Baroque music is a story of the enlightened patron.

And, in this year of Haydn, two centuries after his death, as Ian Page and his Classical Opera Company perform a selection of his greatest works at the King’s Place in London, it is perhaps time to rehabilitate this most famous and successful relationship between musical patron and artist.

The contentment Haydn achieved at the remote court at Esterháza, which had been built on the reclaimed swamplands of northeast Hungary, seems quite strange to us today. Like any other servant, Haydn wore the blue and gold livery of the House of Esterházy, reported to work each day as might the butler or the cook, and did his master’s bidding. Spectacular bidding. Bidding that magicked up some of the greatest music of his career. All created while Haydn was still a mere retainer.

According to the modern narrative, Haydn will have done this in spite of Prince Nikolaus. Genius that he was, Haydn could find a way through “the weight of conformity”, as Marshall Marcus, head of music at Southbank Centre, puts it.

Yet, all the evidence is that Haydn prospered at the court; for him, limitation was liberation.

“I could, as head of the orchestra, make experiments,” Haydn once enthused to his friend, “observe what enhanced an effect, and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to, cutting away, and running risks. I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to be original.”

Read the rest.  I believe there is something to it.  My only criticism of the article is that it paints a somewhat simplistic picture of Haydn’s life at the Court of Esterhaza.  Yes, he was liveried.  Yes, he composed what the Prince wished.  But “bowed and scraped and grovelled”? I don’t believe that’s quite accurate.  Indeed, among other things Haydn was firmly protective of his own position and of the welfare of the musicians under him and there are numerous episodes of his haggling hard with various court officials to ensure that they were treated decently.   Indeed, his famous “Farewell” Symphony (No. 45, I believe), in which one by one the musicians walk off during the last movement, was a deliberate jab at Prince Nikolaus over what Haydn and his court musicians considered to be an unfair holiday leave schedule.  When it was performed, the Prince took the point.  And changed the policy.

Furthermore, while I do not believe that Hadyn ever formally gave up his association with the Court of Esterhaza, he nonetheless was granted very liberal leave to travel about Europe, starting with Vienna and its environs and gradually spreading in range.  Amongst other places, Haydn visited Paris in the mid 1780’s.  He was in London for two seasons in 1791 and 1794.  He certainly didn’t bow and scrape then.  Indeed, everybody from Marie Antoinette and George III on down positively fell all over themselves for his benefit, so insanely popular was he.    

Perhaps it was having read this article that made me pull out my new recording of Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Belli (Mass in Time of War) last evening.  A significant aspect of Haydn’s character – totally overlooked by this article and by many other moderns who try to pigeon-hole his psyche – was the fact of his ardent Catholicism.  “Not of the gloomy, tormented kind,” as his friend Georg August Griesinger put it, “but rather cheerful and reconciled.”

Griesinger goes on to say:

Haydn was very religiously inclined, and a devoted follower of the religion in which he grew up.  In his heart he was most firmly convinced that all human destiny lies under God’s guiding hand; that God is the rewarder of good and evil; that all talents came from above.  All his larger scores begin with the words, ‘In nomine Domini’ and close with ‘Laus Deo’ or ‘Soli Deo gloria’.  “If, when I am composing, things don’t go quite right,” I heard him say, “I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then the ideas come again.”

A natural consequence of Haydn’s religiosity was his modesty;  for his talent was not of his own doing but a gracious gift of Heaven, for which he considered he must show himself grateful.

I have never read a single word by or about Haydn, nor heard or played a single note he ever wrote, that does not fully back up this assessment of his nature. 

I have been reading among several authors in the past few days about the importance of the concept of the corporate “We” in Christianity.  Benedict, in his Introduction to Christianity, remarks that a mystic’s one-on-one isolated relationship with God is no good by itself, but that what counts is the flow of the Word from God among Men, and the collective worship among Men back toward God.  C.S. Lewis says something of the same thing, but also emphasizes that being “nice” to other people without that “niceness” being powered by the Spirit is equally worthless.   I think that Haydn understood this idea, or at least that he certainly internalized the concept.   He was a good man – cheerful, modest, sympathetic, honest.  And just as he recognized with his musickal talent, I think he also understood where that goodness came from and the purposes to which, as a Christian, he was expected to put it.

Now broadly speaking I think this idea, this three-cornered relationship as it were, is simply another way of putting what one would call “Charity” in the religious sense.  I’ve been brooding on this a bit this Lent because the more I think about it the more deficient I feel I am in this area – not forward enough in my interactions with other people and too ready to dash back into the fortress of my Self and pull up the drawbridge after me.   It’s definitely something I need to work on.  Papa Haydn, I think, both in his musick and in his life provides an excellent role model.

N.B – By the way, contrary to the article’s statement, I don’t love composers who “stick it to their masters”.  Mozart, at the time of his run in with the Arch-Bish was a foolish young hot-head.  Beethoven was a shite throughout his life.  I fail to see where either one deserves any particular praise for such behavior.

whistle2  No doubt some of you will slap your foreheads and say, “Well, duuuuuhh!!” but last evening at softball practice I realized that all the theorizing and planning and preparation that goes into putting together a good practice schedule doesn’t amount to a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys if you can’t get the little darlin’s to pay attention!

Call me a starry-eyed optimist, but I had gone into this thing imagining a team of bright, eager, focused young atheletes keen to hone their skills and put together a perfectly balanced sports machine.  What I in fact got was….a bunch of 4th and 5th grade girls.   What was I thinking?

(Okay, okay! But remember – this is my very first experience at this sort of thing.  Baby steps!)

It’s not that they didn’t pay any attention, mind you.  Rayther, it’s just that we wasted a lot of time and energy with giggling, gossiping and clowning around.  (Of course, I suppose that this is good for team bonding purposes.)  Now I’m not Mr. Meany and I have no intention of turning into a drill sergeant, but there’s a time and a place for everything.  Water breaks are a good time to blow off steam.  When I’m trying to run drills? Not so much.

To this end, I’m off this morning to purchase my new Coach’s Best Friend in the shape of the biggest and loudest whistle I can lay hands on.  If that doesn’t work, I may move up to an air horn.  And I have already placed “speak to team about focus” at the top of my agenda for Sunday’s pre-practice talk.

So as not to end on a falsely sour note, let me just also say it has become abundantly clear from our initial practices that there is some serious talent on this team – about half of them can field, throw and catch at speed already and most of the rest just need a little brushing up.   And in following up on my post of yesterday, we did run some double-play drills after all.  Several of the combos were a pure joy to watch.  (On the other hand, I was a bit disquieted about the quality of my new bullpen.   That’s gonna take some work.) 

It seems to me after having surveyed the talent that we can start devoting a much larger portion of practice to working on situational plays earlier than I had anticipated.  Here’s a question for you:  How do you keep the attention of ten gels on the field when a given play may only involve three of them at one time?   Mix it up, of course, and warn them that the ball may be going anywhere, but is there something else as well?


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March 2009