Haydn and Folk Music

Sunday’s NOVA concert features music by composers who were enchanted by different idioms found in folk music. Michael Ellison and Antonín Dvořák were deliberate in their use of folk models. Melodies and textures that evoke Czech, American, and Turkish folk music play a central role in the respective musical identity of each composer, and they both wrote (write) extensively about the importance of their musical source material.

Haydn’s use of Hungarian folk elements in is music is well known. His “Gypsy” Piano Trio, written a year before his opus 76 no. 1 string quartet, is perhaps the most famous example. Otherwise we tend not to think of Haydn as a folklorist. It is worth pointing out that Haydn came of age as a composer at the same moment as the Classical style. When he began composing in the 1740s and 50s, there was no accepted, definitive style as such. Taste was rapidly shifting away from Baroque and Rococo ideals; the dynamic changes that were occurring during Haydn’s youth could perhaps account for the dynamism of his own genius. His own personal, musical style never evolved into a static “style” at any point during his career. His music always avoids the formulaic and strives towards newness and surprise.

Haydn entered his first maturity as a composer just when Classicism was doing the same; in a certain sense, Haydn’s career and the classical style are synonymous. The musical scene in Vienna at that moment (1750s) represented a mélange of styles and aesthetics. Modern audiences (and musicians) tend to think of Haydn’s music as an abstract entity, beautiful and essentially pure of influence; the reality is far more interesting.

Recent research has begun to explore the idea that the major composers of the high Classic era were influenced by vernacular styles more than previously supposed. Of particular note are the writings of Dr. Catherine Mayes of the University of Utah. She has presented her research on exoticism and national styles in music at numerous national and international conferences on subjects such as "Cultural Associations of Turkish and Hungarian-Gypsy Styles in the Late Eighteenth Century and Their Compositional Implications," "Eastern European National Music as Concept and Commodity at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century," and "Reconsidering an Early Exoticism: Viennese Adaptations of Hungarian-Gypsy Music around 1800.”

In the end, Haydn’s music was chosen to complement Ellison and Dvořák on Sunday’s concert simply as a way to introduce this concept to chamber music enthusiasts. Haydn’s music mirrors the melting pot of influences he was exposed to in Vienna; this includes serious art music and vernacular styles. One could make the case that specific moments in Haydn’s opus 76, no. 1 quartet evoke or are drawn from folk sources. For example, the opening melody (after the opening three chords) has a shape and lilt reminiscent of the opening melody of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony, a tune scholars have traced to a Croatian folk song. But for the most part, such theorizing is merely conjectural and subjective since much of the would-be source material for 18th century composers was never recorded or written down. Instead, this introduction serves merely to point out the possibility that Haydn’s intended audience of the 18th century probably heard his works much as we hear Ellison, a kaleidoscopic blend of references to familiar styles of music.

JH, 1.8.14

Nova Chamber Music Series
Nova Chamber Music Series

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