Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



telling tales

papa's got a brand new bag

January 19, 2014

papa's got a brand new bag

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), perhaps more than almost anyone else, embodied the zeitgeist of the entire Classical period. He came of age just as Classical forms and ensembles were becoming standardized and lived to see those same forms reach their peak. He was part of the patronage system for most of his career, composing in the prominent styles and genres of the time and working creatively within them. His unique position in history allowed him to know both Mozart and Beethoven and to observe (and participate in) the nascent Romantic period in music. It just so happens that the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn will be played on LACO’s next concert, and Haydn’s Sinfonia concertante, which dates from 1792, comes from a time when Haydn was just beginning a new phase in his life and career.

Haydn was born more than 20 years before Mozart and outlived him by almost two decades. The two of them had occasion to play in string quartets together for fun. Mozart, who could be a pretty cheeky fellow, was—by all accounts—deferential to the older man. Haydn’s contemporaries describe him as an honest and decent man with a very good sense of humor. In his youthful days, he sometimes displayed a temper, but he learned to deal with people in a way that made them comfortable. Haydn was modest and kind, and he nurtured the musicians he supervised. His unhappy marriage to Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller produced no children, so Haydn was able to bring a sense of fatherly responsibility and wisdom to the musicians with whom he worked. They called him “Papa.”

Haydn worked for nearly 30 years as the court musician for the same family. In 1761, Haydn was hired as Vice-Kappelmeister by Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy. In truth, he was the acting Kapellmeister in everything but church music, but the nominal Kappelmeister, Gregor Werner, was old and nearing retirement. When Werner passed away, Haydn received his title. In 1762, Paul Anton died and Prince Nikolaus I took over, Haydn worked for him for decades, writing symphonies, operas, and chamber music, some of which was specifically for Prince Nikolaus. Nikolaus played the baryton, a now obscure string instrument, and he gave Haydn specific instructions to write music for it. Haydn of course complied, writing at least 125 baryton trios (baryton, viola, and cello) and other pieces for this particular instrument and likely playing most of them with his patron. Nikolaus repaid Haydn’s creativity with gifts and extra favors.

After Prince Nikolas’ death in 1790, his son Anton dramatically reduced the Esterhazy’s music budget, and Haydn—although still paid a salary by the family—was granted leave to travel. Haydn made two London journeys and composed a dozen concerts for them, six for the first trip and six for the second. For the last fifteen years of his life, Haydn was arguably the most famous composer in Europe. He was respected, even revered by some, sought out for compositions, and treated like the elder statesman of music.

It seemed to make a lot of sense to hook up Haydn with “up and comer,” Ludwig van Beethoven. One of Beethoven’s acquaintances from his early years in Bonn was wealthy nobleman Count Waldstein who was just eight years older than Beethoven, but acted in an almost fatherly fashion towards young Ludwig. It was Waldstein who famously sent Beethoven to learn from Haydn with a letter that said:

“Dear Beethoven!
You are going to Vienna in fulfillment of your long-frustrated wishes. The genius of Mozart is mourning and weeping over the death of her pupil. She found a refuge but no occupation with the inexhaustible Haydn; through him she wishes to form a union with another. With the help of assiduous labor you shall receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.
—Your true friend, Waldstein”

Haydn did teach Beethoven for a short time in the early 1790s, but Beethoven’s ego and Haydn’s busy schedule of traveling and composing seem to have gotten in the way. There was no open conflict between them, however, and they demonstrated mutual respect until Haydn’s death in 1809. In fact the younger composer was there to publicly celebrate with Haydn on the occasion of his seventy-sixth birthday, as were Prince Lobkowitz (a sometimes patron of both Beethoven and Haydn) and opera composer Antonio Salieri.

When Haydn was essentially free of his duties with the Esterhazy family, concert manager and violinist Johann Peter Solomon took Haydn to London and into the next phase of his career. In addition to Salomon’s concerts, Haydn heard Handel’s music while in London, and this might have inspired him to write one of the most forward-looking and innovative compositions of his career: an oratorio called The Creation. It took him two years to write, longer than any other of his compositions, and it left him exhausted and depleted of energy when it was finished. His reputation as an important composer—one of the greats—seemed already set in stone, but Haydn wasn’t going to let that stop him from trying something new, pushing the boundaries of the contemporary style, and nudging his own boundaries to encompass new ideas.

I think one of the most inspiring things about Haydn is this aspect of his career: the second life he had when some folks would have retired. After 1790, when the Esterhazy family encouraged Haydn to move on, he could have decided to rest. He had just spent almost 30 years working at the same job, and one could see him just living out the rest of his years quietly. But, ever the creative composer, and the good businessman, Haydn saw opportunity. And he grabbed it. At an age and a time when other people might have said “No, thank you” to new things, Haydn said, “I’m game.” Haydn’s legacy is all the richer for his willingness to seek out new adventures; some of his most memorable compositions come from the period after 1790. Through his sixties and into his seventies, it seems that “Papa” still had a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

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