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The Big Three

The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven

by Charles Rosen
Viking, 467 pp., $12.50

Charles Rosen is a brave man. In this long, exuberant, and well-illustrated book he has undertaken a formidable task: first to describe and then to explain and trace the development and maturation of what has so far proved the richest stylistic achievement in Western music. He has done it in such a way and on such a scale as to make it hard for anyone who cares about the music characterized here to remain without illumination. At times, indeed, his effect on readers is likely to be positively penitential, as they discover to their shame how inattentively they have been listening to the works they thought they knew best.

There are at least two reasons for the accessibility of Rosen’s message. The first is obvious: his book is written with great clarity, sharpness, and wit. A judicious balance is maintained between detailed illustration and generalized comment, and though the technical language of music is used freely (how could it be avoided in a discussion of style?), there is nothing in these pages to dismay readers who can find their way through Einstein’s Mozart or Tovey’s Beethoven.

But the second reason is linked to matters that are more controversial. Rosen, as his title indicates, has chosen to describe and exemplify the development of the classical style almost wholly by discussing its three most familiar—and of course far and away greatest—figures. Since we are dealing for most of the time with well-known works, this is easy and attractive. We are not obliged to struggle with dim dynasties of “interesting” historical figures, but are instead conducted through the exhilarating world of Figaro, the Op. 33 quartets of Haydn, and the Hammerklavier Sonata. Nevertheless there are some dangers in exploring a stylistic galaxy by focusing only on its brightest stars.

These dangers, it is fair to say, are anticipated by Rosen; and he shrugs them off in a characteristically robust Preface:

I have not attempted a survey of the music of the classical period, but a description of its language. In music, as in painting and architecture, the principles of “classical” art were codified (or, if you like, classicized) when the impulse which created it was already dead: I have tried to restore a sense of the freedom and the vitality of the style. I have restricted myself to the three major figures of the time as I hold to the old-fashioned position that it is in terms of their achievements that the musical vernacular can best be defined.

Even with this restriction there is a vast amount of music that falls into his net. The main part of the book, in fact, consists of detailed discussions of the contributions that the three composers have made within the major genres in which the classical style was worked out. Haydn is first investigated in relation to his exploration of the string quartet and the symphony. After an examination of opera seria, a kind of artistic cul-de-sac, three chapters on Mozart follow which are concentrated on three pre-eminently Mozartian art forms, the concerto, the string quintet, and comic opera. A second section on Haydn’s last years (after the death of Mozart) pursues the use that he made of the “popular style” through the last symphonies and quartets, reviews his little-known piano trios in considerable detail, and hangs a discussion of church music onto an account of the classical style in Haydn’s late masses and the last two oratorios.

Beethoven is left to a final section. Rosen is content to show his links with Haydn and Mozart and to sketch in a general way the transformations of the classical style in its last effective years; the illustrations are taken mainly from the late piano works (especially Op. 106). The short Epilogue deals with the discontinuity between Beethoven and the succeeding musical generation; drained of its vitality, the classical style was allowed to run down in the sonata form works of Schumann and Mendelssohn.

The above loose summary omits the first hundred pages. They form a necessary though exacting introduction, since it is there that one will find most of Rosen’s arguments concerning the sensitive relationships between language, form, and style. None of the three terms can be discussed productively without reference to the others. No doubt it is form that is easiest to describe, at any rate superficially; certainly treatises on classical sonata form far outnumber analyses of the classical style. But that does not make form the best guide to what composers have in common; in any case, sonata form was not defined until it was moribund, and although the sonata structure can be regarded as the most characteristic form for the music of the classical period, it does not serve to demarcate it. The problem accordingly becomes one of determining what it is that Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven have in common but that is not shared by Schumann or Chopin or (except occasionally) Schubert, even when these choose to write in classical (or “classicized”) forms. And it is their common style that binds them:

What unites Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven is not personal contact or even mutual influence and interaction (although there was much of both), but their common understanding of the musical language which they did so much to formulate and to change. These three composers of completely different character and often directly opposed ideals of expression arrived at analogous solutions in most of their work.

It is true that we may feel that the style has traveled a long way in the half-century from the end of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony (1772), where the two violinists puff out their candles, to the end of Beethoven’s “Choral” Symphony (1824), in which millions are embraced. Yet the fundamental stylistic unity of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven was (as Rosen shows) recognized by perceptive critics at the time (though they did not of course call it “the classical style”). The musical language of the late eighteenth century that sustained the style was doubtless something that the same critics took for granted. Nevertheless that language had recently undergone a number of fundamental changes—the result of shifts in tension within the system of tonality, the language’s essential structure. These changes, among which the most important was a new emphasis given to the polarity between tonic and dominant, encouraged new lines of stylistic exploration and development:

A style may be described figuratively as a way of exploiting and focusing a language, which then becomes a dialect or language in its own right, and it is this focus which makes possible what might be called the personal style or manner of the artist.

Here, as elsewhere, Rosen seems to show some nervousness over the relation between the classical style and the late eighteenth-century stylistic vernacular. But, considered as a whole, the introductory portion of the book is impressive; it requires to be taken slowly, but the reader who has mastered it can consider himself fully acclimatized and ready to set out from this base camp for an assault on the three peaks ahead of him.

Where Rosen seems to me to make an error of judgment is in selecting a date of around 1775 as an appropriate point for the origin of the style. A date as late as that will of course evade certain problems, but it creates others. The crucial decade in the formation of the classical style must, I think, be seen as the 1760s. Not that there is so much virtue in the exact determination of watersheds; this is in any case boggy ground, in which streams really do for once “meander level with their fount.” Much of the music that comes from the years 1755-1770 is unpleasing, for reasons that are shrewdly characterized here; and even when many features of the later style were already individually present, composers found difficulty—as the current phrase has it—in “getting it all together.” But if there are strong inducements to shirk a study of the preclassical symphony and chamber ensemble, it will not do to by-pass the evidence of Haydn.

Of the three great Viennese composers, the one who made the earliest impact on the European musical consciousness has had to wait far the longest to receive a just assessment. The process of discovering Haydn still goes on today, and it is very much to the credit of the musicology of the last twenty years (on foundations laid down in the 1930s) that we are now within measurable grasp of being able to survey his whole output.1 That this has not been possible before now is ludicrous—imagine Mozart without Köchel!—but a curious fatality seems to have afflicted many past projects devoted to publishing Haydn’s works. To Tovey he was still “Haydn the Inaccessible,” and even though the obscurity was not spread by any means evenly across his work—the quartets, for instance, the later piano sonatas, and indeed most of the symphonies, as well as the last choral works, have never really slipped from the public’s awareness—there has remained a certain detectable hesitation in discussing his place in musical history. Or worse, he has been discussed in thought-banishing clichés: labels such as “the father of the symphony” or “the father of the string quartet” dulled perceptions and replaced understanding.

None of these strictures, I hasten to say, can be applied to Rosen. One of the great rewards of his book is, in fact, his insight into Haydn’s music and the importance that he assigns all along to the vivifying effects of Haydn’s imagination in the formation of the classical style. But it seems to me inescapable that by the time that the Op. 20 quartets of Haydn were written—they date from 1772—the classical style was in essence established. They do not have a transitional air—which is not to say that Haydn was capable of no further development—and in their polish and power they mark an enormous advance from the Op. 17 quartets written only a year earlier. The interesting question here, perhaps, is how far this stylistic achievement, so recently acquired, was still private property. It is not as though Eszterháza, where Haydn’s post as Kapellmeister kept him, was exactly the crossroads of the world (though doubtless it had good links with Vienna). What were the influences that bore on him there? Or was he, as he once said later in a somewhat different context, “forced to become original”?

One begins to wonder how far the classical style was, so much as these things can ever be, the creation of one man. More evidence is of course needed here, but if we consider the sonata form as the characteristic form for the resolution of certain carefully contrived tensions within the tonality that is the language of the later eighteenth century—a compressed statement of what I take Rosen’s views to be—perhaps we shall soon be obliged to accept Haydn as the “father of the sonata”?

Between 1772, the date of the Op. 20 quartets, and the end of 1781, when Haydn’s next quartets (Op. 33) were offered to the public, there was of course a decade of consolidation, development, refinement. A new feeling for pace and continuity is a feature that is easy to demonstrate. Instead of short-windedly cadencing on the tonic after a few measures, Haydn’s openings now expand into a flow of energy generated by the seemingly guileless motifs:

The sense that the movement, the development, and the dramatic course of a work all can be found latent in the material, that the material can be made to release its charged force so that the music no longer unfolds, as in the Baroque, but is literally impelled from within—this sense was Haydn’s greatest contribution to the history of music. We may love him for many other things, but this new conception of musical art changed all that followed it.

This advance is viewed by Rosen as a bonus from the comic operas that Haydn had been writing for his prince at Eszterháza. But this seems contrived. Gaiety was deeper in Haydn than any libretto, and pace is one thing that his operas conspicuously lacked. It is better, I think, to view the classical style as one in which comic operas and quartets and symphonies could be written. In any case, Rosen passes rather lightly over the fact that in the years from 1772 to 1781 Haydn wrote no fewer than twenty-seven symphonies.

It was surely a sound instinct on Rosen’s part to treat Beethoven here as something of an appendage to Haydn and Mozart, and to concentrate on his later works, where the extensions and transformations of the style are most in evidence. By the last decade of Beethoven’s life, the taste of the times had swung sharply away from the classical style, and his later works were written against a background of something like popular indifference, in spite of the awe that his name still aroused. Beethoven, who was not so careless of success with a public as is sometimes imagined, was therefore under a variety of pressures, both internal and external. The most prophetic among the works that he now produced were those that more or less abandoned the classical aesthetic. But they are few; perhaps only An die ferne Geliebte, the song cycle that so overawed the younger generation, is really successful. Conversely, the compositions in which he preserved the spirit of classical language, and kept it vital by extending its harmonic possibilities and redistributing its patterns of tension, found admirers but no imitators.

Some of the changes that he worked are obvious and have often been described by writers on Beethoven: his extensions of tonality, for instance, expressed in his search for alternatives to the dominant as the secondary tonal center within a movement. But no less striking is Beethoven’s continued experimentation with the over-all shape of each work, and with the balance and relationship between the individual movements. In the aesthetic of Haydn and Mozart it was the first movement of a work in which the pattern of tension and its resolution—the terms in which, as we have seen, Rosen chooses to discuss formal structure—is most marked; slow movements and minuets are simpler and less tense (with the trio to the minuet habitually even more relaxed), while the finale is usually even looser in form, squarer in rhythm and phrasing, cooler in key relationships (Rosen draws attention to a frequent use of the submediant toward the middle of a movement—a key also used coloristically at times by both Haydn and Mozart to impart a sunset glow to their codas).

Beethoven, we find, continually challenges this progressive relaxation, and he throws the weight more and more toward the end of a composition. Even a comparatively early work such as the “Moonlight” Sonata already shows him experimenting with this aim: as one wag put it, he “missed out the first movement” (the sonata starts with its slow movement), and he toyed with running the other movements together, no doubt for a cumulative effect.2 Such innovations, to judge by the sketchbooks, appear to have absorbed Beethoven intensely. But they were by no means wholly successful; and it does not seem farfetched to suggest that his restlessness and dissatisfaction with formal experiment may have played their part in the creative uncertainty of the years immediately following 1812. By this time for Beethoven to be purposeless was to be sterile. Subsequently there was a recovery of direction, expressed in (and perhaps gained through) the composition of the Hammerklavier Sonata.

Rosen sees the writing of this work as a heroic act of will, releasing his imagination for the Riesenwerke of the next years: the Missa Solemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the “Diabelli” Variations. About the design of the last quartets he has less to say. But here again it seems to me that it is the role of the finales, the exact weight that each is called to bear, that is crucial to Beethoven’s calculations concerning the over-all effect produced by a quartet. Of course, calculations can sometimes be miscalculations—otherwise we should scarcely have two possible conclusions to the B Flat Quartet, Op. 130, the overwhelming but ultimately rejected Grosse Fuge and its lightweight replacement. But genius often leaves such rough edges; and Rosen, who certainly has not much patience with mediocrity, seems also not to have many illusions about the precarious nature of stylistic achievement and the demands that it places on those who would be true to it.

  1. 1

    It is only in the last few months that we have had any comprehensive guide to Haydn’s extensive output of vocal music. This is contained in the second volume of Anthony van Hoboken’s monumental thematic catalogue (Schott, Mainz, 1971). The first volume, comprising Haydn’s instrumental music, appeared in 1957.

  2. 2

    The published work has a break before the finale, but a late sketch shows that he was then still planning for the movements to succeed one another without a break—as in the “Moonlight” Sonata’s twin, the E Flat Sonata, Op. 27, no. 1.

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