Rediscovering Haydn

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 2: Haydn at Eszterháza, 1766-1790

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 800 pp., $57.50

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 3: Haydn in England, 1791-1795

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 640 pp., $45.00

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 4: Haydn: The Years of “The Creation,” 1796-1800

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 640 pp., $45.00

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 5: Haydn: The Late Years, 1801-1809

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 486 pp., $45.00

The history of music proceeds by revaluation: the standard procedure is to discover greatness in the obscure, merit in the despised. Dethronings are more rare: generally the discredited monarchs topple without having to be pushed; past glories melt like the snows of yesteryear.

There is not, of course, much point in dragging an old manuscript out of obscurity only to affirm that it is of exceedingly little interest. The musicologist generally prefers to believe that when his researches do not heighten our appreciation and enjoyment of the familiar, they at least give us new objects of admiration. Occasionally a historian tries to prove that some works with claims to our respect—like one of Haydn’s cello concertos or Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante for winds—are impostors, written by anonymous or little-known hacks. These attempts are, however, rare: given his choice, the historian would rather discover a symphony by Joseph Haydn than prove that one of those now in the canon was composed by his brother.

The most famous of these revaluations, the revival of J.S. Bach by the early nineteenth century, is a myth: Bach had never been forgotten, his music was greatly admired from his death in 1750 until the end of the century, and the keyboard works were studied and played. Little had been published, but manuscript copies were common enough. The romantic revival of Bach was basically a campaign of publishing, coupled with a series of performances of the choral works, which had remained largely ignored.

The great achievement of the musicology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the reappropriation of the medieval and Renaissance heritage. Then came the turn of the important early baroque figures, like Monteverdi; his fame was firmly reestablished by the 1930s. After the Second World War, all these movements continued, and new areas were opened up. Haydn’s great piano trios are at last being heard from time to time in concerts. Mozart’s Così fan tutte returned permanently to the repertory after more than a century of misunderstanding. Similar efforts have been made recently on behalf of Mozart’s mature opere serie, I domeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, but with significantly less success, neither having gained a foothold in the permanent repertory of more than one or two houses.

Perhaps the greatest commercial success in all these movements of rehabilitation is the revival of the minor composers of early eighteenth-century instrumental music—the so-called baroque and rococo styles. The music is mostly easy to listen to (a kind of eighteenth-century Muzak), recordings can be played without distracting the listener from other tasks, and the ensembles employed are small and economical.

The chief beneficiary of this movement has been Vivaldi; many of his five hundred concertos are now frequently performed. Luigi Dallapiccola’s acid remark about Vivaldi, often repeated, is misleading. He claimed that Vivaldi wrote not five hundred concertos but the same concerto five hundred times. This really ought to be stood on its head. Vivaldi was full of many different ideas, most of them striking, full of genius. His problem was one of structure.

It would be more accurate to say that Vivaldi had five hundred ideas for a concerto, and that none of them ever was fully worked out. It is only after his wonderful opening bars, his extraordinary beginnings (which taught J.S. Bach so much), that his concertos bog down and begin to resemble each other in the deployment of harmonic clichés—clichés which would not matter (as they do not matter in Handel) if the large harmonic form was coherent and interesting, the clichés given a sense of direction and movement instead of a feeling of jogging on a treadmill.

Vivaldi’s operas are coming in for attention now: the same faults and virtues are manifest there. The arias begin strikingly, but continue with little of Handel’s energy, Bach’s intensity, or Alessandro Scarlatti’s subtlety. These deficiencies are less crippling here: an aria is generally much shorter than a concerto movement. In comparing Vivaldi to Bach and Handel, some of his admirers (Marc Pincherle, for example) either refused to face his weaknesses, or else—what is worse—they never understood the strengths of the already established masters. Anyone, however, who has been through the numbing experience of a program devoted entirely to the works of one of Vivaldi’s minor and justly obscure contemporaries like Albinoni will gratefully acknowledge Vivaldi’s finer talent.

The most fruitful sources for the historian seeking to make an important change in our way of looking at music today are by no means the genuinely obscure works never touched by appreciation, but those works—and sometimes whole genres and styles—much celebrated in their own time, which have suffered a long eclipse. The revival of forgotten glory, the resuscitation of dead prestige—this is the kind of achievement that is not only relatively easy to pull off but also attracts the most attention. The renewed interest in the nineteenth-century virtuoso salon music came up in the 1970s above all as a manifestation of anti-modernism, a hatred of the avant-garde; the new and similar taste for official art shown by historians of painting has its counterpart as well in the musicological attempts to revive the opera seria of the early eighteenth century, the official court style of that time. The contempt in which these styles were held until recently is not an obstacle to their revival, but a stimulus and even, paradoxically, an aid: it gives them a kind of avant-garde status of their own. An exhibition of a salon painter like Bouguereau or a performance of a Scharwenka piano concerto is a kind of joke provocation, a parody version of the Armory Show or the riot at the première of Le Sacre du printemps.

What we are often asked to do in these revivals of forgotten masterpieces is forget all the history that has happened since the once-admired works were first revealed to the public, immerse ourselves in the age that created them, recapture the astonished admiration of the contemporaries, and erase the decades and even centuries of neglect and contempt. This historicist approach demands a considerable effort of sympathy and imagination. It may be called a necessary preliminary to understanding.

The danger of the approach lies in the belief that it leads directly to understanding—even, in the most naïve view, that understanding consists exactly in the imaginative attempt to retrieve the ideas and attitudes of a past age. The fallacy that supports this comfortable philosophy of history is the simple faith that an artist is best understood by his contemporaries. This may be true for artists of very little interest (although I doubt it), but the most rapid glance at the history of music shows that a composer of any stature, even when he was appreciated by his contemporaries—as he generally was, in spite of the romantic myth of the unknown genius—was generally radically misunderstood, misread, and misinterpreted by them. It lies with posterity, not to decide on greatness (posterity can at times be as fickle as fortune), but to clear up the inevitable foolishness which surrounds the work during the life of its composer (adding, no doubt, some new foolishness of its own).

The post-history of a work of music—the history of its reception, its changing prestige, its influence—is perhaps even more important for critical understanding than a study of its sources or an account of its actual creation. The work is more than a passive victim of its history. It not only actively provokes the interpretations and the misinterpretations that are visited upon it, but it often incorporates them into itself so that the post-history may become an inevitable part of experiencing the work. The late Beethoven quartets, for example, have become very easy to listen to in the twentieth century, but I do not think that it will ever be possible to hear them without some consciousness of their reputed century-old difficulty: these late quartets have assumed the historical character of difficult music.

The historian who tries to reappraise a once-celebrated genre, like the liturgical music of the late eighteenth century for example, has a responsibility to deal with the condemnation that fell upon it by the 1790s, becoming almost universal after 1800. Not even the works of Mozart and Haydn escaped censure. It cannot be reasonably assumed that the censure was merely a piece of ill-luck extrinsic to the works themselves. The genre was fated to be condemned: how good it is today after more than a century of neglect is another matter, although not one to which the decline of its prestige in the nineteenth century can be pushed aside as irrelevant.

Often enough the later neglect or misunderstanding of an important work can be taken care of without much fuss. The low esteem in which Mozart’s Così fan tutte was held in the nineteenth century was quite simply owing to its immoral and cynical libretto. Even here, however, the condemnation is instructive: the cynicism and the artificiality of the libretto were already out of date when Mozart set it in 1789, a throwback to the French comedies of some forty or fifty years earlier. It is this artificiality which makes it the most symmetrical of all Mozart’s stage works, and the only one of the great comic operas to allow no echo of the political events in the world outside. This gives the music its idiosyncratic quality, one somewhat harder to appreciate than that of the other important operas: there is a good deal of pastiche and parody in many of Mozart’s operas, including Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte, but in none is the pastiche so openly ironic as in Così fan tutte. Much of it is simply a direct parody of operatic style: the irony comes from the evident delight taken not only in the mockery but also in what is being mocked.

The spirit of criticism takes an odd revenge on historicism. Those who dismiss the later history of a work or a style too lightly, who try to lose themselves in an earlier age, who shut their eyes to what followed, and who attempt only to grasp the conditions in which a work could come into being and the significance found in it by the composer’s contemporaries—these lovers of the obsolete and the forgotten end by misrepresenting the very thing they were trying to reproduce so faithfully, and by muddling the period to which they so austerely confine themselves. Rejecting the interpretations of the present, they miss the intentions of the past.

Some of these problems may be seen in the present efforts to rehabilitate parts of Joseph Haydn’s work—those parts as yet largely unappreciated—in Robbins Landon’s new, monumental biography. His efforts are above all on behalf of two genres: the operas and the masses. With the operas, I fear he is heading for a defeat. As for the great religious works of the end of Haydn’s life, Robbins Landon is right in his championship, but wrong about the nature of the criticism that has been leveled against them.

Only a few decades ago there were still immense tracts of unexplored Haydn. The operas were largely unknown, and the 126 trios for baryton unpublished and unexamined before Oliver Strunk looked at them while at the Library of Congress (the baryton—a large six-stringed viol—was the favorite instrument of Haydn’s patron, Count Esterházy). The chronology of the 104 symphonies was not well understood, and scores and instrumental parts of a large number of them were unobtainable. One attempt to publish all of them failed halfway through for lack of funds. Another did not even get so far.

That we are better off today is owing in large part to the work of Robbins Landon, who has devoted his life principally to Haydn. His finest achievement was the first complete publication in the 1960s of all 104 symphonies. This edition had the great merit of returning not only to the manuscripts but also, if somewhat unmethodically, to sets of contemporary orchestral parts, with the conductor’s markings. Several volumes are already out of print, but those who were prudent or enthusiastic enough to buy them at once can now survey the whole of Haydn’s symphonic output. There is, finally, a complete Haydn edition under way at Cologne (containing of course a rival edition of the symphonies) and it looks like being completed in reasonable time. It will soon be possible to assess all of Haydn’s works that have come down to us.

To his other researches Robbins Landon has added a new biography of Haydn in five volumes, the last four of which have so far appeared. This important book will be useful to scholars for at least a half-century to come, but it is difficult to say just what kind of book it is. Robbins Landon knows a tremendous amount about Haydn, and he has dumped almost (but not quite) everything he knows pell-mell into these volumes. They are a cross between a catalogue of works and a collection of documents, all combined with the commonplace book of a man who has spent many years with Haydn, and jotted down ideas and notions as they occurred to him.

The documents are so numerous and so valuable that it is a pity Robbins Landon stopped short of putting in absolutely everything. So many contemporary critical accounts of Haydn are given that one regrets the ones that are omitted. The size of the work is already elephantine; another volume would hardly make much difference. As it is, each reader will find something in this profusion. The catalogue is also very useful.

The weakest part of the book is the analysis of the works. It is not that Robbins Landon does not often find something important to say about the music; much of what he writes is sensitive and penetrating, and it is all informed by a great love of Haydn and an enthusiasm which would be infectious if the book were not so disorganized and unsystematic. The real difficulty is a technical vocabulary of analysis which is slovenly. For Robbins Landon, “F sharp,” for example, can be a note, or the triad of F sharp major, or the key of F sharp major.1 Without a score, it is often impossible to tell what he intends. He writes like a man going quickly through the pages of Haydn’s works and pointing out to a friend the passages he likes the most.

The world of music is in Robbins Landon’s debt, so there is no point in insisting on such imperfections. One can, however, regret the uneven proportions, with volumes 3, 4, and 5 each covering only four to eight years while volume 2 takes on a quarter of a century, 1766-1790, fascinating years—among the most important not only for Haydn’s personal development but for his importance in history, for his influence on his contemporaries, and for the musical life of the late eighteenth century. In the period between 1766 and 1785 Haydn developed the first string quartets and symphonies which still remain in the repertory today, and produced an extraordinary number of operas by other composers as well as himself at the little court of Esterház. Haydn’s last years are better documented, no doubt, but Robbins Landon surely knows even more about the earlier and middle periods than he is willing to tell.

Now that the operas of Haydn are at last being published, we find them full of good things—how could it be otherwise? How would it have been possible for a man of Haydn’s genius to have written thousands of pages of operatic score without allowing his genius to shine through? It is the nature of this genius that is in question. With all the greatness of the symphonies, quartets, and piano trios, Haydn was a small-scale composer—or, better, a middle-scale one. Mozart’s ability to control a whole opera in his head at once was beyond him. On a somewhat smaller level, Haydn could be more daring and more shocking than Mozart. His use of silence is the most dramatic in the history of music. His sudden changes of harmony often take one completely unaware, and the orchestration is often intentionally astonishing—in its combinations of solo wind instruments it comes closer to Mahler’s technique than any other music before the twentieth century.

The weakness of Robbins Landon’s brief for Haydn’s operas is apparent at once in his discussion of the operatic finale—the group of ensembles at the end of an act that follow each other without any intervening recitative. The finale was the great glory of Mozart’s operatic style. Robbins Landon would have us believe that the large-scale quasi-symphonic finale was invented not by Mozart but by Haydn.

This is to misunderstand Mozart’s originality. Similar sets of ensembles, more or less unified by beginning and ending in the same key, existed two or three decades before either Haydn or Mozart wrote them. It is the nature of the coherence of the tonal structure of Mozart’s finales that was revolutionary. The archetype is the finale of the second act of Figaro. Hermann Abert pointed out the extraordinary symmetry of the different parts long ago:


The E flat, B flat/B flat, E flat mirror pattern at the opening and closing provides a frame, but what is even more remarkable is the inner structure. The first two keys are tonic and dominant, related as in a sonata. This initial opposition is followed by a leap to a more remote key (G major), and this change to a distant tonality is also typical of the central section of a sonata-form. From then on—G, C, F, B flat, E flat—each key is the dominant of the succeeding one, leading naturally and convincingly back to E flat. In short, the form begins with a classical opposition of tonic and dominant, makes a single dramatic modulation, and then moves simply and convincingly back to the opening. Moreover, the texture starts as a duet, becomes a trio, quartet, quintet, and then a septet as the action becomes more and more embroiled.

Nothing like this is found in Haydn. Robbins Landon, claiming that “the basic organization, also the application of symphonic devices to large-scale vocal forms, is the same in both works,”2 offers us the following pattern from La fedeltà premiata, Act I:

Bb—G major—G minor—Eb—C major—Ab—G minor—Bb—G minor—Bb

The framing device is partially achieved, but the inner coherence is a series of symmetrically arranged harmonic shocks, very different from Mozart’s single dramatic leap followed by a progressive movement back to the opening tonality; in particular, the oscillation between G minor and B flat at the end is an example of Haydn’s small-scale sense of movement.^3 And, most important, the correspondence between texture and action we find in Mozart is lacking. A rehabilitation of Haydn’s operas is not worth much if it entails a misapprehension of Mozart’s achievement.

Operatic finales may have been first written in the 1740s, probably by Galuppi. In one sense, however, Mozart invented the operatic finale—the finale as a large-scale coherent musical form, which makes a musical sense that is almost independent of the text. The organization of a Mozart finale is not merely a set of key relations, but a sense of key movement, an ordered progression back to the tonality of the opening. For this order, and for its simplicity and efficiency, there is no known precedent, nor was Haydn’s technique capable of supplying one.4

Haydn’s masses are a different matter: his operas were largely ignored, but his masses were censured. Most of the masses were composed at the end of Haydn’s life after all the quartets and symphonies had been written, at the moment of his greatest mastery and when his reputation was at its height. He had retired from his provincial post at Esterház, and the son of his old patron Count Esterházy paid him a pension dependent only on his writing two masses a year. The young count’s musical interest lay almost entirely in religious works. Haydn, deeply religious himself, accepted the commissions gladly; he devoted his last years of composition largely to choral music—six masses for Count Esterházy and the two oratorios The Creation and The Seasons for the Baron van Swieten. Then there followed a melancholy half-dozen years when Haydn, still full of musical ideas, was too old and too weak to compose, too feeble to go to the piano and work out his ideas, the way he had composed all his life.

The censure of the Haydn masses is called “Victorian” by Robbins Landon, and he reproaches me with great courtesy for having perpetuated the charge (in a book I wrote some years ago) that these works are too operatic for a religious service. The operatic nature of the liturgical music has never particularly bothered me, nor could it bother anyone who enjoys Verdi’s Requiem. The real difficulty with some of Haydn’s masses is not that they are too operatic, but that they are, at least in part, not operatic enough, not symphonic enough, not anything enough—that is, they do not have the highly idiosyncratic style of the other genres, and they do not have much of a strongly characterized style of their own to compensate. They are often timidly symphonic, tepidly operatic and—in desperation—strongly archaizing when nothing modern will seem to do.

Victorian” is a misleading word: it suggests that the censure began much later than it did. Robbins Landon wishes—and, I think in the end, justly—to revise what was once the standard critical opinion of these masses, to make us see how masterly they really are. But the opinion will not be simply set aside unless we see how it arose—and unless we see that it is, in fact, contemporary with the works themselves and reflects the problems that Haydn had, quite consciously, to deal with.

Robbins Landon quotes a few laudatory reviews of the masses, omits much of the contrary critical opinion, dealing summarily with what he does mention. Strong dissatisfaction with rococo church music had already begun in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Modern style seemed inappropriate for the words of the mass. Archaizing is already found by the early 1780s in Mozart’s great unfinished Mass in C minor, with its magnificent imitations of Handel. Other composers went much further. The last years of the century saw a revival of the style of Palestrina, and an interest in a cappella writing: the chief exponent was Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael.

One low estimate of the Haydn masses printed by Robbins Landon may be found in a brilliant series of articles on the development of German music in the eighteenth century that appeared in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1801. They were written by Triest, about whom nothing is known, not even his first name, except that he was a preacher in Stettin; but these articles are held up as a model of criticism by the most important early nineteenth-century dictionary of music, Gerber’s. Triest arranges Haydn’s works in order of importance. First come the symphonies and quartets; next comes the piano music (although, Triest says, some connoisseurs would prefer not only the piano music of Mozart and of Clementi but even that of the young Beethoven, if he would only lose some of his savagery); last and least are the operas and religious works. To have singled out Beethoven as early as 1801 shows Triest to be astute and well informed.

One sentence of Triest’s article, which introduces the judgment of Haydn, is revealingly mistranslated by Robbins Landon. He renders it:

And so I fear not, if I set up the following classification of Haydn’s works against the opinion of the majority of connoisseurs and critics.

The original reads:

Und so fürchte ich denn nicht, gegen das Urtheil der meisten Kenner und Kritiker anzustossen, wenn ich folgende Klassifikation der Werke Haydns aufstelle.

Correctly rendered, this is:

And so I have no apprehension of going against the judgment of the majority of critics and connoisseurs if I set up the following classification of Haydn’s works.

That is, Triest is claiming that his rating is identical with the judgment of most musicians, but Robbins Landon, whose German is much better than mine, refuses to understand him. Within a few years, the condemnation of the masses is confirmed; with all his reverence for Haydn, E.T.A. Hoffmann is apologetic about them. The disapproval of the liturgical music even begins to reflect on the oratorios: poets are better guides to cultivated opinion on music than critics, who generally have an axe to grind, and in Ludwig Tieck’s discussion of music in his influential Phantasus of 1811, even The Creation of Haydn is condemned along with all of his religious music.

The contemporary criticism of Haydn’s liturgical style was not so much that it was operatic but that it was trivial. If these works are to be, not reinstated (their reputation was never high in spite of a few good press notices), but revalued, offered once more with their great merits at last fully revealed, then we need not a rebuttal of the charges against them but an explanation of how the charges could have arisen, of what critical expectations Haydn had to meet and to satisfy.

The eighteenth-century composer of Catholic religious music faced contradictory aesthetic requirements. The Church officially wanted music that was festive: others, and the composers themselves, wanted music that was expressive, that aptly fitted the words of the mass. As an analogy, we may point to the conflict in Renaissance Italian architecture, when the architects wished (for both aesthetic and philosophic reasons) to build churches with a centralized form, and the Church wanted a long nave for processions, and a form that divided the priest from the laity. The setting of Gloria in excelsis Deo could be both grand and expressive. The problem was, above all, the Credo and the opening movement: a jolly, festive setting of Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy”) seemed a contradiction in terms.

Of all the historians of music, only Hermann Abert in his great book on Mozart has dealt interestingly with this point, although briefly. Alfred Einstein dismissed it quickly but not before pointing out that criticisms of trivial or indecorous Kyries began early in the century. Unfortunately, modern ideas of an eighteenth-century mass are based largely on Bach’s Mass in B minor: very few contemporary works have the expressive intensity found there. Most are brilliant and grand in a perfunctory way—perfunctory, because an uninhibited use of the operatic style that was second nature to most composers of the time weighed on their conscience when a religious text was at hand. They occasionally did it—the greatest example is the coloratura aria with a cadenza for soprano and solo winds that Mozart wrote in his C minor Mass as a setting of “Et incarnatus est“: it would be silly to object to this ravishingly beautiful piece, but equally silly to describe it as either decorous or adequate to the text.

Admirers of rococo church music, including Robbins Landon, like to claim for it an equal status with rococo church architecture and decoration, as well as an identical spiritual impulse: the joyful celebration of faith by the most lavish and brilliant means. The playful imagination of the eighteenth-century Austrian and Bavarian churches was similarly criticized by many contemporaries: it made the interiors of the churches look like salons, they complained. Once decidedly out of fashion, these magnificent interiors are now very much appreciated, precisely for the gaudy extravagance which caused them to be censured before. But it is just this extravagance that rococo church music lacks: it is always less brilliant, less imaginative, and less idiosyncratic than the finest contemporary achievements in opera, symphony, or chamber music, while the greatest rococo churches, like Ottobeuren, either equal or surpass in brilliance and even eccentricity the comparable examples of secular rococo decoration, like those at Nymphenburg. Rococo church music is generally timid harmonically, its orchestral brilliance is with rare exceptions a conventional use of trumpets and drums, and the vocal effects far tamer than those in opera. (The late Haydn masses, harmonically and instrumentally adventurous, are no longer rococo at all, but clearly moving toward a classical solution of religious style.) Above all, church decoration and architecture are not tied to the expression of a particular text: their expressive effects are more general.

Whoever decreed that the music must fit the text?” a music historian who loves rococo church music once remarked to me (I am forced to use this anonymous verbal quotation since a musicologist who acts on this assumption, if he has both intelligence and a sense of self-preservation, does not commit it to print). Many ages did not indeed demand this correspondence between music and words, but almost everyone at the end of the eighteenth century, including Haydn himself, felt that the music must express the text of the mass. No understanding of Haydn’s liturgical style can do without some sense of this demand and, above all, some realization of the difficulty of meeting it. Late eighteenth-century style was formed largely by opera, and the phrase structure derived above all from comic opera. Haydn’s music could be both dramatic and witty: it was difficult for him to be one without the other.

In addition to a contradictory aesthetic and a musical language not easily accommodated to a liturgical text, there was a third force that increased the difficulty of forming a liturgical style that was both adequate and modern: the natural conservatism of religious feeling. Just as many still prefer the King James translation of the Bible, and as the late W.H. Auden joined the Greek Church rather than hear Anglican prayers read in modern English, there was a strong feeling in the late eighteenth century that old musical styles were best for a religious occasion. The old styles at least had a guarantee of respectability: the real proof of gravity, then as now, was a fugue. If everything else failed in the attempt to give dignity and high seriousness to late eighteenth-century style, the fugue was the last resort.

Haydn is perhaps the greatest master of the academic fugue. In a sense, he invented it: in many respects the nineteenth century fugue owes more to Haydn than even to Bach, although this is not often realized. Cherubini’s contrapuntal style was the paradigm of academic counterpoint; he learned it from Haydn’s works, and transmitted it to the nineteenth century with the power of the Paris Conservatoire behind him. Haydn’s fugues are largely Handelian pastiche, but they are brilliant, powerful, and often moving. If they are less interesting than the greatest fugues of Bach and Handel, that is inherent in the nature of academic pastiche—it is a dignified and always slightly archaic form. The finest of Haydn’s fugues in the masses, the oratorios, and the finales of some of the quartets are so magnificent, however, that the difference between them and the greatest examples of Bach is negligible—it only comes to mind if we insist on thinking about it.

Archaizing was a makeshift, however. A truly modern religious style was more embarrassing: it came to Haydn painfully, with none of the ease that he found in symphony and quartet. If there are, indeed, passages in his masses that sound trivial, that is because the ways of transforming a tiny motif within a fully dramatic texture in a symphony cannot always be used with decorum in a mass: Haydn’s style is based on the use of these small cells or motifs, and sometimes they are left untransformed in the religious works—unexploited and consequently insignificant.

In recent years the masses have become available to music lovers in accurate editions, many of them owing to the astounding industry and energy of Robbins Landon. Performances have become more frequent. At a Haydn conference in Washington in 1975, all of the late masses could be heard in succession within a week. My estimate of these works is much higher now than it was when I wrote briefly about them; like all lovers of Haydn, I am grateful for the championship of the masses by Robbins Landon, J.P. Larsen, and others, but I am unregenerate about my criticism of that time. The criticism was not, in fact, my own, but traditional; most of it was made during Haydn’s own lifetime, and he was fully aware of it. It is also clear, from the apologetic remarks he made about his religious music and his absurd contention that brother Michael’s liturgical works were better, that he acknowledged its cogency. To a certain extent, as I have said, the traditional criticism indicates the problems that Haydn envisaged, and they illuminate his final triumph.

It was not, and could not be, an unmixed triumph. With these new editions, we can now follow his development from the sweetness, the charm, and the facile pomp of the early masses (above all the Little Organ Mass) to the grandeur of the late works. Even these late works do not allow the free exercise of some of Haydn’s finest and most characteristic qualities: his humor and wit, his elegance and, above all, his excentricity—the lightning changes of harmony and texture, which seem unprepared and turn out later to be completely integrated into the large form. What one misses most at times is the rhythmic variety. Substituted for it is a driving rhythmic energy, which entails an unvaried texture that becomes monotonous only because it is not handled with the large sense of harmonic movement that one finds in Handel’s equally homogeneous textures.

Dramatic variety is provided by a contrast of solo voice and chorus, in an opposition that comes from concerto technique. Haydn’s concertos were never his strong point, but here, in the masses, he has three levels of sound: solo, chorus, and orchestra, and this gives him greater space to move about. In these late masses we can trace his increasing mastery: he uses the chorus sometimes as a larger solo group, sometimes as a tutti section, and achieves his most dramatic effects through contrast.

The last two masses override almost all possible criticism in very different ways. In the “Creation” Mass (so-called because Haydn quotes his own oratorio in it), Haydn throws off all inhibition in some of the movements (like the Benedictus and the Allegro of the Kyrie) and writes a pure symphonic piece: the scherzo-like quality of the Benedictus, light and extraordinarily witty, even popular in style, is still shocking at first hearing. The final mass, with so heavy a use of wind instruments that it is called the Windband Mass (Harmoniemesse), is very different. In this work, Haydn at last achieves a complete integration of text and music. The opening Kyrie is no longer festive but a prayer; it satisfies the Church’s requirements by its grandeur and its dramatic power. It remains slow throughout, intense, and completely symphonic: solo voices act like the solo winds, the chorus is orchestral. The form is the sonata form of the instrumental works. Yet here, if anywhere in the masses, we may say that Haydn transcended the purely instrumental style of the symphonies and quartets. The Windband Mass has no sense of constraint or compromise. It offers an abstract musical form in which the identification with the text is absolute.

(This is the second of two articles on reassessments of eighteenth-century music.)

  1. 1

    See, for example, page 245 of volume 5, where a modulation is described in which F major is listed twice; the first time it should be F minor, and is a key; the next it is a chord and should be V7 of B flat.

  2. 2

    See Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 2, p. 544.

  3. 4

    Most discussions of precedent are, in any case, of very little interest: D.F. Tovey once remarked cogently that a musical idea belongs properly not to the composer who invented it but to the one who first used it effectively.