When I walked into the dimly lit Panera Bread restaurant this morning at 6:30, I cringed when I heard their choice of Muzak. It was a selection of that emo stuff, with guys sounding like someone’s squeezing their nuts…and girls singing with flat intonations, all mush-mouthed and sleepy like they just rolled out of bed.
I wonder if contemporaries of Franz Joseph Haydn, upon hearing his latest symphony — say, Symphony No. 43 in E Flat – thought the same way, like: “I say, Franz. This is frightfully trite. Do you honestly think anyone will want to hear this in a hundred years?”
If they did, they were wrong. Over two hundred and forty years later, here I am listening to that same symphony, nicknamed “Merkur” (Mercury).
Today’s Haydn symphony (another from the Sturm und Drang years of 1770-1774) grabbed me from the opening notes. I’m not sure why, or what it is about certain passages of music that earn my immediate respect. But this is one of them.
Here, maybe you can figure it out. This is exactly what I’m listening to this morning:
Someone uploaded to YouTube Symphony No. 43 in E Flat performed by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, Adam Fischer conductor. So (at least for as long as it remains on YouTube) you can hear for yourself what I’m hearing. Maybe you can figure out what it is I like about one symphony over another. If you do, please let me know.
Another thing I don’t know: Why is Symphony No. 43 in E Flat nicknamed “Merkur”? Its entry on Wikipedia didn’t tell me. So I had to go in search of that information.
Over an hour later, I’m still searching. Nobody, it seems, can tell me why Symphony No. 43 in E Flat is nicknamed “Merkur.” I find that odd. All I can discover is that it has been referred to as the “Mercury” symphony since the nineteenth century, according to the book The Music of Joseph Haydn: The Symphonies, by Antony Hodgson. London: The Tantivy Press. I can find no other reference regarding this seemingly not insignificant bit of nomenclature.
If I had days to ponder this, perhaps I’d uncover the reason. Alas, I do not. So onward and upward.
(Oh, one more thing: According to its entry on Wikipedia,
H.C. Robbins Landon describes the slow movement “as a chamber symphony opens with muted strings”. It is the only movement of any of Haydn’s symphonies to be in the key of A flat major.
That tidbit is worth noting. The only movement? Sadly, I cannot verify that since I’m not (a) H.C. Robbins Landon, or (b) a musicologist by any name.
Movement III (“Menuetto & Trio”) is delicate and lovely. Movement IV (“Finale: Allegro”) is bouncy, complex, and stirring. Haydn was 39 when he composed this remarkable symphony.
Symphony No. 44 in E Minor “Trauersymphonie” was composed in 1772. Haydn was 40. (Trauer means Mourning or Grief in English.) According to its entry on Wikipedia,
Late in life, Haydn asked for the slow movement of this symphony to be played at his funeral.
If true, that’s a remarkable statement. I wonder if his wish was carried out. Was Movement III (“Adagio”) played at Haydn’s funeral? Let me quick Google that.
Can’t find that out, either. I just hate these unverified statements on the Internet.
However, in my search, I did discover a book called All Music Guide to Classical Music: The Definitive Guide to Classical Music, edited by Chris Woodstra, Gerald Brennan, Allen Schrott in which I found this brilliant explanation of Sturm und Drang:
…with its dominant aesthetic of heightened emotionalism, flourished not only in Haydn’s output but in Austrian music in general. The Sturm und Drang came form the title of a 1776 German novel, and was also applied to a German literary movement.
This emotionalism took the form of devices such as increased use of minor keys, a tendency towards stronger, even violent, contrasts in the music, restless syncopated figures in the accompaniment, and other devices, many of which had originated in Italian opera of the 1760s.
That’s the best description of Sturm und Drang I’ve yet read. So I guess my search wasn’t in vain. Something good came of it.
Symphony No. 45 in F Sharp Minor, composed in 1772 (Haydn was 40), is nicknamed “Absciedssymphonie (Farewell).” I have no idea why. But I hope to find out. If its entry on Wikipedia is to be believed, here’s the reason:
It was written for Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, while he, Haydn and the court orchestra were at the Prince’s summer palace in Eszterháza. The stay there had been longer than expected, and most of the musicians had been forced to leave their wives back at home in Eisenstadt, so in the last movement of the symphony, Haydn subtly hinted to his patron that perhaps he might like to allow the musicians to return home: during the final adagio each musician stops playing, snuffs out the candle on his music stand, and leaves in turn, so that at the end, there are just two violins left (played by Haydn himself and the concertmaster, Alois Luigi Tomasini). Esterházy seems to have understood the message: the court returned to Eisenstadt the day following the performance.
That’s a cool story. And it reminds me of the time I saw the sublime Aussie band Midnight Oil on their Blue Sky Mining tour. As they played their last song (“The Dead Heart” from Diesel and Dust), band members walked off stage one by one, leaving only the drummer in the end. Eventually, he stopped playing and then he, too, left the stage.
It was a powerful moment, very theatrical. So I know the effect Haydn’s performance must have had on the Prince.