This is the problem: He did not die tragically young, but lived to a ripe old age. He did not leave a trove of letters scattered with four-letter words. And they haven’t made a famous film about him. In fact, Franz Joseph Haydn led a respectable, relatively quiet life, simply turning out one masterpiece after another.
He was born to working-class parents in a small village in Austria. At a young age, he was discovered to have a superb ear for music and a beautiful voice, so he was sent to the cathedral choir school in Vienna. Afterward, he set out on his own as a teacher and composer, living in an attic that leaked rain through the roof. Discovered by an aristocratic family (one of the richest and most powerful noble families in the Austro-Hungarian Empire), he was hired to be their court music director.
Haydn wrote and directed operas for the noble family, composed chamber music for their evening pleasure, and directed the personnel and operations of the prince’s own orchestra, whose members, together with Haydn himself, were housed in a nearby village.
Out in the country, Haydn said, “I was cut off from the world. There was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original.” And not only original. He was one of the most prolific composers of his time. His output includes 12 full-length operas, 104 symphonies, over 60 string quartets, and many hundreds of other works.
But what is the point of stressing the sheer number of his works (over a thousand)? No point, if the works are no good. But Haydn was so “original,” so gifted and inventive a composer that this list is packed with masterpieces. He was not a Mozart, who began to impress the world when he was 8 years old, who challenged authority and made his way as a freelance composer when he was just in his 20s. Haydn was simply a hard-working, brilliantly creative composer, turning out one remarkable work after another. No movie material there!
And yet this weekend, Saturday night at Tanglewood, we shall be treated to two of Haydn’s most wonderful symphonies: No. 64 (“Tempora mutantur”) and No. 45 (the “Farewell” Symphony). These, if we listen carefully, give us the full range of Haydn’s genius. Symphony No. 64 was given the title “Tempora mutantur” by Haydn himself. The full quote, in translation, is “Times change, and we change with them.” It was written in about 1775, when Haydn was in his early 40s and in the midst of his career with the prince and his enormous house and household.
Listening carefully means noticing the deliberate surprise of the quiet-loud opening measures, the sound of the violins and violas in octaves for the second theme of the first movement, and the special color of the horns playing unusually high throughout. It also means being alive to the melancholy quality of the phrasing in the slow movement, the sound of the muted strings, the sudden addition of the winds in the middle, and the effect of the low horn at the end. These tiny details are what make Haydn stand apart from every other composer of his time.
The “Farewell” Symphony is famous for its ending, in which Haydn sends a subtle message to his employer that it is time to end the season, which had been unusually extended that year, and let his musicians take their vacations and go back to their families in the city. Gradually, at the end of the last movement, musicians leave the stage, until, of the whole orchestra, only two violins are left.
But this is only the most overtly dramatic element of this extraordinary work. Every other aspect of it is also fascinating, starting with the key, which is in a very rare minor key. The first movement stresses this key, with arresting downward figures on the strings, offbeat accompaniment, and strident winds. The Adagio is in the major, which is continually undermined by minor passages. Again the strings are muted, and the movement projects long strings of dissonances. In the following Minuet, Haydn makes it deliberately impossible to know when phrases begin and end, disturbing our sense of order. The last movement is lively and rhythmic until it merges into the very unusual slow ending passage in which Haydn sends his subtle message to the prince.