F. J. Haydn: A Moving Target

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. 

JH, 1.8.14

Michael Ellison’s New String Quartet

This coming Sunday, the NOVA Chamber Music Series will present the second performance of Michael Ellison’s String Quartet #3 – ‘Fiddlin.’  The work was co-commissioned by NOVA and the Arizona Friends of Chamber Music for the Fry Street Quartet, who performed the world premiere in Tuscon last month.  Ellison's new quartet will be performed in Utah twice this month (NOVA on Jan. 12 as well as a repeat performance in Logan on Jan. 14).

Michael Ellison has worked in Istanbul for over ten years, where he co-founded and directs the groundbreaking Hezarfen Ensemble, a group that specializes in combining Turkish instruments with the performance practices and mediums of Western music. In his note on String Quartet #3 (below), Ellison discusses how his music creates a kind of parallel universe to our modern existence, seeking meaning in tradition within a global landscape that is largely post-tradition.

String Quartet #3 is based on the idea of ‘fiddling’ and ‘riffs’ across traditions, primarily using North American bluegrass fiddle and Turkish/Balkan kemençe styles as starting points for a work that deals with tradition, its endlessly revitalizing energy, and its integration into a contemporary, highly ‘rhythmicized’ compositional language.  With its stream-of- consciousness, multi-movement structure (even more movements than in my seven movement String Quartet #2, but just as continuous) this work contextualizes ‘vernacular,’ traditional string figures and ‘riffs’ within a more abstract sound world, presenting fiddling elements in some moments as a total, immediate physical presence occupying the entire quartet sound space, while at other times juxtaposing them as fragments of pastoral innocence set within a web of post-modern abstraction and illusion or memory; that is to say, at one or several steps removed from tradition.  For me, this is something that perhaps roughly corresponds to situations we all face today and difficulties of integration within our own consciousnesses, seeking meaning from tradition in a post-tradition, post-classical music, multi-cultural milieu—an urgent reason for creating new works that can address such paradoxes in a musical realm.    For me, this also means a give and take, and a creative tension between perceived vernacular elements and my own compositional language, for which the quartet medium provides a particular discipline while offering nearly limitless intimate and expressive freedom.

While based on fiddling elements, the work is meant to be chamber music in the deepest sense, creating what Hans Keller called the peculiar ‘harmonic counterpoint’ that only the string quartet can create, at times within dense or widely spread, contemporary textures, while maintaining a high level of individuality between the players and navigating its cultural and technical overlays with wit, energy of the ‘folk’ and a dose of formal, mercurial audacity. – Michael Ellison

JH, 1.5.14