Franz Joseph Haydn

The Year of Our Lord 2009 is the bicentenary of the death of Franz Joseph Haydn (d. May 31, 1809), known in the last two decades of his long life by the affectionate moniker of “Papa Haydn.” In the aftermath of the most recent American presidential election, just before Barack Obama’s inauguration, I wrote that sane people might do themselves a favor to withdraw their attention from the sordidness of contemporary politics and reacquaint themselves with J. S. Bach’s great work The Art of the Fugue. I have a similar purpose in mind in recommending to the contemporaneously anguished a healing visitation to the richness of Haydn’s large and varied compositional catalogue. Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven shot up and fell back like glorious meteors. Both owed an artistic debt to the older man. Haydn, the most important Western composer after Bach, established his career early and, by gradual self-emancipation from service to the aristocracy, became a public composer, writing steadily for a bourgeois audience, who responded with gratitude. Haydn, in contrast to Mozart and Beethoven, lived long, lived well, and managed to integrate himself securely in the middle-class world of late Eighteenth Century Europe.

Haydn’s Titanic productivity can only humble ordinary people. Having more or less invented the string quartet and the symphony, Haydn supplied them almost wholesale, without ever lowering his standard. His late-in-life oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, made him a London celebrity, and consummated his long relation with a genial English following. One can sometimes entertain the impression that Haydn – pardoning the artistic blasphemy – is a greater composer than Beethoven. I once guiltily confessed this disposition to my friend Steve Kogan, one of the most cultured men I have ever known, who answered with a laconic but telling, “So, you too?”