Franz Joseph Haydn’s career paralleled the rise of of the “Classical Style,” a term assigned to a period of music known for beautiful elegance and graceful proportions. A sense of propriety governed this body of music, largely written for the courtly pleasures of the aristocracy. While these ideals may be operative in the music of Haydn, a wider view is necessary when examining the music of a complex artist who sought constantly to defy expectation.
Haydn came of age in the 1750s as the aftershocks of Baroque music were giving way to a number of different trends in music. Two of the most notable examples of opposing styles thriving during this time were found in the music of Bach’s sons: C. P. E. Bach, who wrote expressive, subjective music vs. that of a more Italianate flavor, J. C. Bach and the stile galante.
But citing these two examples represents a gross oversimplification of the musical life in Europe during this time of rapid stylistic change. Vienna, Haydn’s stomping grounds as a student and his home from age 8-29, offered a rich tapestry of musical experience. Italian opera dominated the dramatic landscape, while a more dignified and antiquated approach suited the wealth of music composed for the liturgy. The north German school offered idiosyncratic, introverted music as opposed to the new drama found in the concert music at the court of Mannheim. The symphony, string quartet, keyboard sonata (and the piano itself) were only just taking on the forms we now recognize as Haydn was writing his first serious works in his twenties.
It might be possible to look at later examples of musical classicism and try to distill patterns and trends into a theory that one could label the “Classical Style.” But for Haydn, whose music was born out of a melting pot of styles, such distillation is often difficult. In addition, Haydn followed a unique path as he spent 1761-90 quite isolated from the rest of the musical establishment at the Esterházy estate. As a court composer suddenly devoid of interaction with current trends in music, he came to view composition in this setting as a place to take risks and push the envelope. The creation of music as Haydn saw it was a fluid, evolving process. For fear of becoming artistically stagnant, he “had to become original” (his words).
So while Haydn uses techniques, genres, and forms that we can often neatly categorize with hindsight, we can still hear his music as he intended it; each new work a grand experiment of expressive possibilities that steps beyond the bounds of convention in a singular way. The Fry Street Quartet performs Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, opus 76, no. 1 this coming Sunday on NOVA. It is a thrill for our series to have access to collaboration with a Utah string quartet at this level of artistic excellence. You can be sure that all the drama of Haydn’s poetic sensibilities, elegance, off-beat sense of humor, and rustic charm will be illuminated by a dynamic and breathtaking reading by the FSQ.