The Creatures of Papa Haydn

Long overshadowed by his pupil Mozart, the real father of Viennese classicism should be heard again

Music

A new-created world!” It’s an intimidating phrase when Sir David Willcocks suddenly pulls you out of the choir to declaim it solo in front of everyone else. We, the chorus of the Ernest Read Concerts for Children, were rehearsing Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation for a Royal Festival Hall performance, around 1981. Sir David, our revered conductor, was trying to instil an appropriate sense of wonder into his gaggle of sleepy, spotty teens so that we might convey the delight Haydn evokes when he imagines observing the beauty of nature for the very first time. Goodness knows if we managed it, but the danger of being pounced upon to speak the words alone certainly woke us.

It must have worked. Since then, The Creation has been “my” piece, the one I turn to whenever the going gets tough. This Enlightenment masterpiece can strip away all the layers of disillusionment and doubt and remind you that there is something profoundly extraordinary about our existence. It literally makes you feel glad to be alive. 

Famously, the work was inspired by a performance the composer attended in Westminster Abbey in 1791 of Handel’s Messiah, presented by 1,069 musicians and singers. But Haydn’s response could only have sprung from his questing and humane creativity, not widely appreciated enough in his time and still deserving greater acclaim.

Belated fame was always the order of the day for Haydn. After spending most of his life as a court kapellmeister, he was astonished when the impresario Johann Peter Salomon introduced himself, and announced: “I am from London and have come to fetch you.” Haydn duly went to London — and there discovered, aged 58, that he was a superstar. 

Haydn had endured a difficult childhood as a chorister at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna — not the cushy number you might imagine, for the boys often went hungry and, when their voices broke, they were simply thrown out, often with nowhere to go. He was no exception. Fortunate to be taken in by friends, he survived as a jobbing musician until he was able to win his first posts as a kapellmeister. In this capacity he was employed for nearly three decades in the grand households of successive Counts Esterházy — while this essentially made him a servant, it also provided valuable security. He had a fine orchestra at his disposal and wrote many of his 104 symphonies for it — operas, string quartets, piano sonatas, piano trios, choral works and more flowed from his pen. He was unhappily married, but always popular with women and had a secret mistress. His musicians — among them, the father of Franz Liszt — nicknamed him “Papa Haydn”.

Living on the isolated Esterháza estate in Hungary, he had only limited contact with the latest musical trends. Perhaps that made his responses all the stronger when he did encounter them: Mozart’s string quartets influenced him as much as his influenced them, the sound of Hungarian gypsy music infuses many of his dizzying finales, and we already know what happened when he heard Messiah. He befriended Mozart and later taught the ungrateful Beethoven. But as he said himself: “I was cut off from the world, nobody in my vicinity could upset my self-confidence or annoy me, and so I had no choice but to become original.”

Haydn never stopped experimenting, growing and developing. One of his most startling innovations was musical humour. There’s little in 18th-century music as deliciously funny as The Creation‘s cavalcade of new-created creatures — the double-bass grinding beneath the great whales, whooshing strings for the leaping stag, a spoof pastorale for the grazing sheep. At the other end of the spectrum, the depiction of Chaos that opens the oratorio was unprecedented in its originality, while the rapt state of grace in Adam and Eve’s duet is so perfect that it can bring on the tears. Yet despite the events currently marking the 200th anniversary of his death, Haydn is a relative rarity in today’s concert halls, far overshadowed by Mozart, even though the quality of his music is not in question. Could this be partly down to Mozart’s superior marketing potential? After all, nobody has written a play claiming that Haydn had Tourette’s Syndrome, nor suggested that he might have been murdered. Nor has any town turned him into its principal emblem for everything from music festivals to chocolates. 

To make matters worse, Haydn’s orchestral music has gradually become the almost exclusive preserve of period-instrument ensembles, which — despite their freshening up of the sound — has had an unfortunate side effect: an unspoken ban on the playing of Haydn by mainstream modern orchestras. The latter are still the competitors with the most clout, performing in the largest halls to the largest audiences, but now they seem too wary of historical nitpicking to try their highly accomplished hands at anything perceived as “specialist”. Thus the glories of Haydn have accidentally been excised from the mass market, as if pickled in cultural formaldehyde and labelled “EARLY
MUSIC: KEEP OUT.” 

I’m sure that was never the intention. After all, the whole point of historically
informed performance was to explore such repertoire more deeply, sympathetically and thoroughly. But that’s what has happened and it is one of the under-acknowledged disaster zones of the music business. Now only the efforts of stubborn and determined world-class musicians who eschew such barriers can put Haydn back centre-stage where he belongs — for instance, the wonderful baritone Thomas Quasthoff, who is a prominent champion, and the great Hungarian pianist and conductor András Schiff, who has presented all-Haydn series with the Philharmonia Orchestra and at the Wigmore Hall this year.

The Creation, though, seems able to transcend every division. And as a footnote to its special appeal, it is intriguing to see that Charles Darwin was born in the year that Haydn died. If you read Darwin’s Beagle Diary and listen to Haydn’s Creation, the same sense of wonder shines out from both: the same fresh-eyed marvelling at the natural world, the same questing enthusiasm to comprehend its extent, grasp it, absorb it and depict it with a passion that makes us love it, too. 

Haydn too spent his life on a voyage of discovery; he and Darwin both set out
visions of a new-created world. And now, several decades after Sir David made me shout out that phrase, I think I’m finally beginning to understand what he meant. It’s not necessarily about belief in God. It’s about belief in life itself. For that reason we need Haydn back and we need him now.