LACO’s upcoming concert features a Piano Concerto written at the beginning of Chopin’s career and a symphony composed near the end of Haydn’s career. In some ways, their professional lives were the inverse of each other. Chopin started out writing symphonic works to introduce himself to the musical public, and eventually all but gave up public performance in his later years. On the other hand, Haydn spent 30 years working for a single family and didn’t really have the opportunity to work in the public sphere until he was in his late forties.
Haydn was born in 1732, Chopin in 1810. Haydn’s piece on the program—Symphony No. 102—dates from 1794. Haydn was sixty-two years old when the piece premiered in early 1795. Chopin was just nineteen years old when he composed the Piano Concerto No. 2 in 1829. (This piece was actually his first work in the genre, but the two works were published in reverse order.) Haydn’s symphony is the work of a mature composer writing for a modern, sophisticated audience. Chopin’s Piano Concerto was premiered at a concert at Warsaw’s National Theater in 1830, and the hometown crowd was immediately smitten with the composer’s use of national dance rhythms and folksongs. Let’s take a closer look at the contexts of these two works.
It was at the beginning of January 1779 that Haydn was finally permitted to write music for people other than his patron. After this date, Haydn undertook two journeys to London and composed a dozen symphonies for this audience. These are among his most famous pieces, and many of them have nicknames you might recognize: “Surprise,” “Clock,” and “Military.” Haydn was fortunate enough to live three decades after being freed from his contract, and he made excellent use of that time, composing piano trios, string quartets, and other instrumental works. It is in this wonderful, fruitful time in Haydn’s life that Symphony No. 102 was written. The London audience was enthusiastic about Haydn’s work, and he had a creative resurgence at a time when other composers might have thought about winding down.
In his final years, which were spent in Vienna, Haydn concentrated on vocal music, including six masses and the oratorio, The Creation. One of his late masses is a favorite of mine, the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war), which is also known as the “Paukenmesse” or the Kettledrum mass. I sang it with the College Choir when I was an undergraduate at Hunter College, and I think the Agnus Dei from that mass is still one of the prettiest pieces I’ve ever heard. The Creation is a stunning work as well, and must be heard to be believed. Who would have thought Haydn’s career would end so spectacularly? I’m sure he himself was pleasantly surprised by his successful second act.
Chopin was not so lucky to enjoy a long life. He struggled with health issues for years and finally succumbed to pulmonary tuberculosis in October of 1849, a few months shy of his fortieth birthday. Both Piano Concertos, however, date from two decades earlier, at a time when Chopin’s professional career was just at its beginning. At nineteen years old, Chopin was finishing up his education at the Warsaw Conservatory, and looking for ways to travel abroad and play his music for new audiences. He was able to take short trips to Berlin and Vienna, and on those journeys, he found that audiences were especially charmed by works with Polish characteristics. When he got back to Warsaw after these trips, he set out to write a piano concerto, likely knowing it was the best way to show off both his compositional skill and his talent as a performer. In both of his piano concertos, Chopin chose to base the final movements on Polish dance forms.
One might be forgiven if one thought that Chopin’s career would consist of more of these types of pieces and their subsequent performances, but that’s not how things went. His unpredictable health and the physical strain of public performance encouraged Chopin to focus on teaching and composing. In fact, his orchestral works after the two piano concertos were few and far between. And you know what? That’s all right by me, because he spent the lion’s share of his career writing the most beautiful, most sublime music for his beloved instrument, the piano. In fact, there isn’t a work in his entire output that doesn’t feature the piano. It was truly and in so many ways, his voice.
I’m very interested to hear Haydn’s 102nd Symphony and Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2 side by side. It will be an interesting juxtaposition: one work from a composer just starting out, and the other from an established and successful composer in the prime of his creative life. Also, let’s not forget that Haydn’s work comes from 1794, just after the wave of Classicism had crested, and was beginning to move towards the first glimpses of Romanticism. Chopin’s work comes from early in this Romantic period, hinting at the chromatic style, rhythmic freedom, and improvisatory flavor that would color his mature work. It should be an interesting evening with these two men, one who died in 1809 and the other who was born just ten months later, destined never to meet, except on the concert stage.