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.

Tell Tchaikovsky the News

If you invent anything you never know where it will end. It could be anything from some all-consuming masterwork to nothing more than whistling a tune you don’t remember anyone whistling before. Images, texts, pieces of music percolate through culture and history in the most amazing ways. It must be one of the great joys of creativity.

Beethoven (and Tchaikovsky for that matter) could have had no idea:

Did Leonardo know what Marcel Duchamp surmised?

Could Shakespeare guess that the Montagues and Capulets would morph into the Jets and the Sharks?

Grant Wood could never have known his painting would “go viral”. And could his sister and dentist (yes, his dentist, apparently) have had any idea what they were letting themselves in for?

Man and woman with stern expession stand side-by-side. The man holds a pitch fork.

Thanks are due to the Poet in Residence for inspiring this post.

Daevid Allen

If you feel belief (hi Pete)
I got a story to tell you
Of a band of little green men
From a far away planet
If you want to know about love
Then ask the wee geezer
He can teach you telepathy
He can read your mind backwards…

It was sad to read about the death of Daevid Allen last week. I wish I knew more about him and his music – but I don’t. The fact is, when I was at school, we had a good laugh thanks to his band, Gong. They came up with just the sort of titles and lyrics to amuse pretentious teenage boys of that era. Squeezing Sponges over Policemen’s Heads, Flying Teapot. But that was that.

Gong was prog rock. Prog rock was something you were supposed to like in our sixth form and, believe me, I tried. But for me, the LPs never did what they said on the sleeve.  The fact that Mother Gong -a Gong spin-off- played at Glastonbury when we went there in 1981 was a curiosity. We would have preferred The Clash. And John Cooper Clarke was there and -my most enduring musical memory of that weekend- so was Aswad.

It all came back to my attention thirty years later when I came across a CD of Camembert Electrique in Cob Records (one of my favourite shops – you never know what you’ll find in there). The track-names rang bells. I just had to buy it and listen again: Fohat Digs Holes in Space, Tropical Fish (there’s an ear-worm to conjure with)…

I was hooked. In the decades since my youth I’d got to know Charles Mingus and Weather Report and goodness knows what else so I found myself listening to Gong with new ears.

Continue reading “Daevid Allen”

A Musical Journey

I’ve detected a trait in myself over the years – a tendency to set what are for me pointless, possibly unachievable goals. First among these has to be the desire to climb all the Munros. After a few years, it became clear that, although I enjoyed climbing them (and still do, occasionally), I didn’t really have the completist drive to carry on to the bitter end.  I just don’t mind whether I climb them all or not. I’ve discovered that it’s more rewarding -for me- to simply work through them, “collecting” them if you like, using the list as an inspiration to visit different parts of Scotland occasionally, when I have the time, and climb different hills.

So: I’m not going to say at this point that I’m setting out to listen to all of Haydn’s symphonies – all 104 of them. I have, however, started at number one. I don’t know how far I’ll get or how long it’ll take me. I know several already – enough to know I tend to like the earlier ones I’m familiar with more than the later ones. Consequently, I don’t mind very much if the project fizzles out. I’ll almost certainly listen to all the early ones before it does. The aim isn’t to get to 104: it’s to hopefully fall in love with a few pieces of music I don’t yet know. As with the Munros, it can be better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

I don’t know as much as I should about Haydn especially considering he’s one of my favourite composers. He lived in the 18th Century and was a man of his times: he went from working for the aristocracy to writing music for public concerts. There is a dramatic story of the impresario Salomon crossing Europe, knocking on his door and, when a bemused Haydn opened it, announcing “I am Salomon, and I have come to take you to London.” He did, and the result was Haydn’s series of “London Symphonies” (nos. 93-104). I’m currently listening to number seven so that’s, er, eighty-five to go…

The scale of Haydn’s output is staggering and perhaps counts against his popularity. How can one start a pub conversation about a band that has made 104 albums? If you only produce a small, respectable number, fans can compare notes. Also, if you produce so much, people will suspect your work to be watered down, lacking the intensity of artists who produce less. Less is, after all, more, they’ll think. In Haydn’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. Haydn is a one-man Western tradition.

Perhaps the most important thing I know about the man is that he really did have a reputation in his lifetime for being all the things people say about you when you die – he really was, apparently, a thoroughly nice, good natured bloke with a great sense of humour. I say this is important because I think it really does come through in the music. Even when it’s dark it has a good-natured quality that has Haydn’s name written all over it. I would go so far as to say that, for some people, there are prescription drugs out there which are not half as effective at lifting one’s feelings as Haydn’s music can be.

The obvious thing to do was to end this post with a link to the first symphony. However, number six is one of my all-time favourites among the ones I know already. The work is subtitled “Morning” and the opening of the first movement paints an enchanting picture of the sun rising – followed by a dawn chorus of birds.