Sooner or later, any discussion of Haydn’s music gets round to his “sense of humour”. The Farewell and the Surprise symphonies are the famous examples of this which are often discussed. I’m sure, when I was at school, we were told that Haydn was simply a jolly chap who liked amusing and alarming his audiences and, though this is probably true, I think there was a lot more to it than that.
I won’t repeat the famous story behind the Farewell Symphony. However, one only has to listen to it to realize there is a lot more going on than mere leg-pull. It is an intense, serious piece of music and the phased departure of the musicians towards the end only serves to intensify it further. It puts one in mind of the kind of theatrical approach to musical form Modernist composers such as Ligeti or Kagel might have employed.
I was pleased to discover that I was not the first person to find myself thinking of a resonance with the work of the 18th century writer, Laurence Sterne. In fact, a parallel was frequently drawn in Haydn’s lifetime and, I discovered, Haydn himself had Sterne on his bookshelf. And just as echoes of Haydn can be found in the work of Modernist composers, so the work of Sterne -in particular, the novel Tristram Shandy- influenced Modernist writers. The similarities are part influence and part a matter of a common sensibility: the relationship between the work of both men has been written about at length by David Wyn Jones in his book, Haydn.
“Shandean” is a term often used to describe work that reflects the spirit of Tristram Shandy. Sterne himself said of his writing: “”I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good humoured Shandean book…” Tristram Shandy is famous for its twists, turns and digressions, which Sterne light-heartedly writes about in the book itself and even illustrates:
I am now beginning to get fairly into my work; and by the help of a vegetable diet, with a few of the cold seeds, I make no doubt but I shall be able to go on with my uncle Toby’s story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line. Now,
These were the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third, and fourth volumes (Alluding to the first edition.)—In the fifth volume I have been very good,—the precise line I have described in it being this:
By which it appears, that except at the curve, marked A. where I took a trip to Navarre,—and the indented curve B. which is the short airing when I was there with the Lady Baussiere and her page,—I have not taken the least frisk of a digression, till John de la Casse’s devils led me the round you see marked D.—for as for C C C C C they are nothing but parentheses, and the common ins and outs incident to the lives of the greatest ministers of state; and when compared with what men have done,—or with my own transgressions at the letters ABD—they vanish into nothing.
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy
The most Shandean of Haydn’s symphonies, in my opinion, has to be No. 46, especially in its final movement with its ts eccentric formal changes of direction (during which it seems to come to an end more than once!). To quote Wikipedia:
The opening [of the fourth movement] is a typical energetic theme in the violins which is rapidly taken up and developed, with the horns prominent in their high register. The music rushes on only to break off suddenly, interrupted by the closing passage of the minuet [the third movement], followed by the repeat of the whole of the second half of the minuet. The horns then burst in again with the main finale theme, but fade away and the music stutters almost to a halt. Then, on an underlying pedal on the horns, the strings take the movement and symphony to a rapid and abrupt close.
What is the point of all these digressions and dislocations? In Sartre’s novel, Nausea, the main character, Roquentin, is researching the details of the life of an 18th century historical figure with a view to writing a biography. However, he decides that since he can’t understand the day-to-day chaos of his own life he certainly won’t be able to understand the life of an historical character which has been reduced to a series of recorded accounts. The stuff of life is the chaos, not the stories we create to try and make sense of it.
Similarly, Sterne’s Tristram could have stuck to his plan and given a straightforward account of the events of his life. However, had he done so, what would we know of him? Instead, every hour spent reading his ramblings is an hour spent with the man. We enjoy his chaotic company, which is surely preferable. As I said, in Nausea, Sartre’s Roquentin, faced with chaos, finds writing biography impossible. In Tristram Shandy, Tristram finds writing autobiography impossible. He puts this down to the effect on his personality of the circumstances of his conception. However, the ironic reference to “a rational Being” in the opening suggests a more more serious, philosophical aspect to this. Sterne (unlike the atheist Sartre) was a vicar and, I suggest, Tristram is his idea of a typical, irrational human forced to surf the Age of Enlightenment:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.
Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy
If the impossibility of writing autobiography draws our attention to Tristram’s personality then perhaps Haydn’s digressions draws our attention to the music itself. It is all too easy to follow the course of a classical symphony unaware that you are really not listening to the music. Once you are familiar with the form you can usual tell where you are in it at most given moments: these bars sound like a minuet, these, the trio. Tracking its course can, unconsciously, be uppermost in the mind of the listener when what the composer wants us to do is simply listen. Like one lost in the hills forced to pay close attention to the landscape, a listener unsure of his or her bearings has to pay more attention to the soundscape. Also, like Tristram, perhaps Haydn, if he simply wants to digress from the matter at hand, does so! If art imitates life, it has at times to be spontaneous and unpredictable.
*Illustrations: Laurence Sterne [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons