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Laugh Along with Haydn!

ART TIMES September 2008

Franz Joseph Haydn was the greatest composer of his day. Even Mozart said so. (At the same time, Haydn referred to the younger Mozart as the greatest composer. They were both correct.) That Haydn in his later years and even posthumously should be called Papa Haydn as a token a great affection tells us much about his music. And a good deal of the appeal of his music is the good humor he injected into it.

Even as a child, Haydn was an incorrigible prankster, forever getting into trouble with choir masters. As a young man, he once summoned all the musicians he could to a street corner and told them to play whatever they chose. After some minutes of ear-splitting cacophony, the local police had to break up the “serenade” and make an arrest or two.

Other anecdotes of his prankishness have been attested to or might be apocryphal, but his predilection for Puckish behavior is certainly evident in his music—and that is conclusive enough evidence.

The best example, of course, is found in the opening bars of his Symphony No. 94, nicknamed “The Surprise.” The music publisher Salomon twice invited Haydn to perform in London, and the latter was happy to oblige to conduct and to provide some new symphonies in honor of his host city, 6 on each of his visits.  It is said that he noticed how some members of the English audience tended to doze off during the quieter moments of his music, and he decided to pull one of his little jokes in his G-major work.

The second movement is in the theme-and-variations format, and Haydn chose the universally known tune “Ah vous dirai-je, maman,” better known to the English as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” Things start off with a straightforward rendition of the tune, and just when the melody is completed the second time (at “like a diamond in the sky”), there is a tremendous Paukenshlag, a crash from the orchestra that must have aroused the most somnolent snoozer in the house.

Having brought smiles to the faces of those who had stayed awake, the movement then has a second surprise: the crash is never repeated. Thus does Haydn foil expectation twice.

Another story tells of how Haydn was setting to music the Agnus Dei movement of a sacred work, when he felt himself seized by a great joy. When the Empress Marie Therese (not her godmother, Maria Theresa) heard it, she took Haydn to task. The words “Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi” (Lamb of God, who bears away the sins of the world), she insisted, were nothing to be jolly about. Haydn’s reply is perfect: he was not thinking of the “peccata” but the “tollis.” It still took some persuasion to bring a smile to her august lips. But smile she did, as the story goes.

Perhaps it was his peasant background in which the laborers of the earth believed in their religion but did not let it press too heavily upon them (as one biographer suggests). Perhaps it was the very physical appearances of the Baroque churches of his time with bright colors and smiling cherubim all around the altars. Add to that Haydn’s own good nature and no one can really accuse him of the slightest disrespect for his faith.

There are some times, however, when I wonder what even a sour faced curmudgeon would do when faced with having to set the Ten Commandments to music. Haydn, commissioned to do just that, decided to use the canon format in a very academic style. When he came to “Thou shalt not steal,” he had a bright idea. Probably knowing he was looking for trouble, he simply used another composer’s music! (Never having heard this piece, I wonder what he did with adultery, music being an ambiguous form of communication at best.)

My goodness, one might almost make a case for him paving the way for PDQ Bach, the composer who wrote (as his creator put it) with tracing paper!

That last anecdote is my favorite one about any composer, and it goes a long way to explaining why I love Papa Haydn’s music more than that of most composers of his time.

(Note: My prime source for this article is Joseph Haydn, His Art, Times, and Glory by H.E. Jacob (Rinehart & Company, Inc., 1950)

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