Listening to Haydn (3)

Like Symphony No 6, Haydn’s Symphony No 31 (“The Hornsignal”) often uses instruments in a soloistic way. It is a very warm piece, written soon after the recruitment of two new horn players to the Esterharzy orchestra. It may be fanciful, but it has an almost conversational feel, I think, as if the new players are being welcomed by the orchestra. Of the works of Haydn I know, this symphony is really one of my favourites.

In the last Haydn post, I wrote about the different movements in a symphony. In The Hornsignal the fourth movement is very like a conventional second movement. Towards the end Haydn, as if aware of the problem he is creating for himself, stops composing more lyrical music, turns up the volume and speeds things up a bit (Beethoven, later,  did something similar if on a bigger scale at the end of his 9th Symphony). He also brings back the “horn signals” that began the work, which begs the question, why does repeating music from the start of a work make us think we’re approaching the end?

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Traveling North

I do not buy into
the drumbeat soundtrack
that seeks to make sense
of the night as I sit
drinking black coffee
trying to stay awake
(I’ve a long way to go).
There are no dancers here
just tired bodies
strapped into the machine:
you’ll see for yourself
if you step outside
into the dark and if you
look in through the window
you’ll see a man
sat at the table there
watching the lights move
on the motorway
and trying to write it all down
before it’s too late

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017

 

 

My Favourite Hole in the Ground

My favourite hole in the ground
is on top of Harkerside Fell.
It’s not very big but
you can lie down in it, just,
so you’re out of the wind.
If you look over the edge
you can see for miles
only don’t get too comfortable
or one of the straggly nettles
that live there
(vicious bastards that they are)
will bite you on the arse,
even through your trousers –

so take care.

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2017

Listening to Haydn (2)

It would be easy, writing about Haydn symphonies, to dwell on aspects of their musical structure or even the anecdotes relating to them (the famous story behind the “Farewell” symphony springs to mind). That is not what I want to do. I am simply setting out to present those symphonies which, having heard them once, made me want to listen to them again and again! In my last post, I focused on Symphony No 6. Numbers 7 and 8 are on my listening list, too. I can’t stress enough that there may be others in between that will bowl me over on a different day but after number 8, the next symphony I found really engaging on first hearing and want to draw attention to is number 19.

It would be wrong for me to make assumptions about what readers might already know about classical music. Hopefully, a few people might read this who know very little.  With that in mind I want to deal with the basics in this post and take a moment to write about what a symphony actually is.

Most symphonies consist of four movements. It’s an interesting concept, the movement. Pieces of music in other genres tend to consist of a single span of sound. The only genres I can think of offhand where several separate pieces routinely make up a whole are classical music and the stage musical.

The movements of a classical piece are not unlike the acts of a play. For example, a slow movement may be written to be heard in the context of the fast movement that precedes it and so on. The different moods of the movements in a work set up a musical narrative. In Symphony 19, the first movement, in a bright major key, is followed by a darker second movement, written in a minor key.

As the symphony evolved, composers settled on the convention of writing four movements: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a dance movement (a minuet) and a “finale”. It’s a useful convention, as it prompts the composer to include everything that the piece needs to have to be considered a “symphony”. Symphony 19 was an early symphony and comprised of only three movements.

A symphony is, literally, a “sounding together”. However, by the time the four movement pattern was established it had become far more than that. A classical symphony, like a Shakespeare play, aims to embrace the whole breadth of human experience.

To generalize in what I hope is a useful way, the first movement, the most involved, combines depth of feeling with complexity of thought. The second, a slow movement, tends to focus on the emotional. The third, a dance, focuses on the physical. The fourth, usually fast, brings the work to an affirmative conclusion. This is obviously too simple: I’m trying to reduce the symphony to a formula, such as a detective writer might resort to and like a good book, a good symphony will obviously exceed the boundaries of any  formula. Incidentally, of the four, my description of the fourth movement is the least helpful. The fourth is often considered the hardest to write, too: composers talk of the “fourth movement problem”. A composer of symphonies has to find his or her own way of solving it, sometimes contriving to deny the listener the affirmation they expect.

 

 

 

Listening to Haydn

A couple of weeks ago I finally finished doing something I’ve been doing for some time. I’d set out a couple of years ago to listen to all the 107 (and a quarter) symphonies written by Joseph Haydn. I’d listened to about ten of them before I started. I liked one of these very much indeed and was motivated partly by the thought that I might find a few more that really captured my imagination. Listening to music isn’t that hard: we find ourselves doing it these days most days whether we like it or not, so it wasn’t exactly climbing all the Munros or swimming the channel.

Popular wisdom has it that the later symphonies (the Paris (82-87) and London symphonies (93-104)) are the “best”. This was another motivating factor for me. The one I liked most of those I knew was an early symphony: No 6 was the first one Haydn wrote for Prince Esterhazy, the aristocrat who employed Haydn for most of his working life. I soon discovered there were plenty more earlier symphonies worth listening to. No 6, in parts, used instruments in a soloistic way reminiscent of the baroque concerto grosso. I think its a shame that as the classical style developed, composers did this less and less. The combination of multiple soloists and orchestra makes for a rich texture. As a double bass player, I was ashamed to discover that I didn’t know what great solo double bass moments Haydn had incorporated into several of the symphonies. I also learned that Haydn had written a double bass concerto which has been lost. Judging by the double bass writing in the symphonies, that could represent the loss of what might arguably have been the greatest piece of double bass music in the repertoire for that instrument.

Symphony No 6 (Le Matin) begins with a magical evocation of the dawn. Haydn achieves with a few notes and the modest forces of the Esterhazy orchestra what Ravel, in Daphnis and Chloe, achieved with the help of every trick in the modern orchestration book. The way the opening puts one in mind of the rising sun is uncanny. If you’re wondering if that is indeed what you’ve just heard, the music that follows leaves you in no doubt. The birds start to sing:

I did come across several more of the symphonies that I especially liked – so, mission accomplished. I’m going to deal with these in a series of separate posts. I also discovered that the more I listened to Haydn symphonies, the more I wanted to listen again to other ones that had not appealed to me quite so much first time round.

Five Short Poems

 

I wrote a haiku this morning, while sitting in the garden next to the rhubarb. It then occurred to me to gather together the last few haiku I’ve written into one place. Here.

Shandy Hall -mentioned in an earlier post- was the home of the writer Laurence Sterne.

The ones about birds I wrote almost exactly two years ago. Without realising it -I was just cycling past- I had almost the same thought about curlews in exactly the same place a couple of days ago on August 12th, the date I originally posted it in 2014.

 

Rhubarb Leaves

rivers running down
from curly mountaintops through
shiny green valleys

 

Shandy Hall

imaginary
footprints through the grass leading
to the next chapter

 

Three Bird Haiku

1

A constellation:
seven starlings flying in
the shape of the Plough.

2

A heron standing
very still by the river.
Is it a model?

3

The days get shorter.
You feel a chill in the air:
the curlew is gone.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2016

 

 

Saeduni!

ساعدني!

A short story

 

It all happened a while back, when things weren’t going too well. Chris was ill and I was having all sorts of problems at work. Thankfully, all that is behind us now.

I vividly remember the first time it happened. I was in bed, trying to go to sleep after a particularly stressful day. I was just dozing off when I heard a loud bang. It was as if a giant metal tank had slipped its chains and fallen from a crane. I nearly jumped out of my skin. I sat up and looked around in the darkness. All I could hear was Chris’ gentle breathing. At least whatever it was hadn’t woken him up, I thought. He wasn’t having a good week. He’d just started a new course of medication. The side-effects were not good. He needed his sleep.

I climbed quietly out of bed and went to the window. Surely something must be going on out there, I thought. I pulled back one of the curtains and looked out. Of course, had there been any all-night engineering operations nearby I’d surely have known about it. As it was, I’d neither heard nor seen anything to suggest anything of the sort. I was tired. I told myself to think straight. It must have been a car accident. The street, though, looked empty under the yellow street lights: no broken glass, no twisted metal. I quietly opened the window. Cool air fell on my face. The town was more or less silent. A motorbike went by, a few streets away. I listened as the Doppler shift faded. If something calamitous had happened, there would be sounds of people shouting, sirens, that kind of thing. There was nothing. I closed the window and went back to bed.

I felt sure I’d heard a sound. Had I dreamt it? I didn’t think so. The moment before it happened I’d just decided to check that I’d set the alarm clock. I was working an early shift the next day. If I hadn’t dreamt it I must have imagined it. The trouble is, it sounded so real. You can’t imagine a sound that sounds real.

It started to happen every night. I stopped jumping out of bed to see what was going on. Whatever it was was obviously in my head. Should I be worried, I wondered? Loud bangs happening outside were bad enough. Heaven knows what damage loud bangs were doing inside my head.

Chris told me to go and see the doctor. I did as he suggested and the doctor reassured me: the bangs were not real. My brain was intact. He took my pulse and my blood pressure and declared them to be within acceptable limits. He said I had what he called Exploding Head Syndrome. He said it wasn’t serious. The sounds were a symptom of stress. I should try to relax more. He could prescribe medication but felt it would be more effective at this stage if I were to learn to meditate, to practise mindfulness. There were other options, he said, but that was all he could suggest for now, as my time was up. He gave me a leaflet about stress and a survey form. He told me the health centre would appreciate me filling in the form, as it would help them evaluate the quality of the service they provided.

Over the following weeks the bangs got worse. I started to call them explosions because the louder (or was it the closer?) they got, the more they sounded like explosions. I could hear more detail. Where at first there had been simply a loud, if resonant, report there was now more of a rich ‘boom!’ which took longer to fade away.

One night, after the predictable blast in my head, the loudest yet, I decided to get up and go to the bathroom. As I opened the door onto the landing I was aware of a flickering red light that filled the widening crack. I could feel intense heat on my face. Beyond the door was an open space, far bigger than the landing I knew to be there. Everything around me was on fire. The ground was strewn with rubble.

I might have dismissed the whole thing as a bad dream and willed myself to shut the door the way you sometimes can in a dream but I could see people beyond the flames. They were lying among the rubble, trying to pick themselves up and crying out in a language I couldn’t understand but which sounded, to me, like Arabic. They obviously needed help and I had to reach them. There was nothing else for it: I lunged forwards. If I moved quickly, I reasoned, I’d probably be okay. As I passed through the flames everything changed again. The flames vanished. I found myself standing outside the bathroom in the quiet darkness of the landing.

I went in and turned on the light, which bounced, harsh, off the tiles on the wall. I was breathing heavily. Remembering the advice on the leaflet, I made an effort to breathe more slowly. I felt safe in the bathroom and anyway the vision or whatever it was had faded. Perhaps, I reasoned, I’d been sleepwalking and dreaming at the same time. Strange things happen on the edge of sleep. I looked at my face in the mirror. I remember thinking I looked a little older than I used to look. I relieved myself. I opened the bathroom door and, gingerly, made my way back across the landing. There was no sign of what I’d encountered earlier.

I lay awake for several minutes, unable to go to sleep. I knew I had to go and take a look once more. I had to make sure, for both our sakes, that it was possible to step out of the room without having to face the fire. I got up again and opened the door. Quiet darkness. I turned on the landing light and left the door ajar.

 

Copyright (c) Sackerson, 2016