Published March 31. 2014 6:00AM Updated March 31. 2014 12:51PM
In "Just Listen," The Day's music writers share their playlists of favorite recordings and invite you to share your comments and your playlists. Each blog includes Spotify tracks of the music in play. You can stream the music, then add your comments in this blog. Spotify is a free music service.
We like to envision artists we admire as having lived vivid, melodramatic lives, starving in garrets, battling personal demons, struggling against the Philistines in a world not ready for them. It's a compelling narrative. That's probably why you'll never see a biopic on one of the greatest of all musicians: Franz Joseph Haydn.
Haydn's moderate, boring life and his imaginative music both seem to define his era, The Enlightenment. His music is the very model of reason, wit and optimism. A peer once criticized Haydn, noting that his church compositions lacked soul-searching depth. Haydn replied, "Since God has given me a cheerful heart, I should be be pardoned that I serve Him with a cheerful spirit."
Don't we all need to be cheered up? Well, happy birthday, Papa Haydn, born March 31, 1732.
Haydn is diminished in many eyes because he was so prolific: 104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, 26 operas, 39 piano trios, 47 piano sonatas and much more. How can there be depth in any one work? Well, few composers wrote more consistently excellent music than Haydn – perhaps only Bach. There is a freshness and sense of invention in all of it. I once spent several days listening to all 39 piano trios in succession, and they never felt repetitive.
Haydn pretty much standardized the structures of string quartets and symphonies and presented the template for sonata form – the interplay and harmonic tussling of two themes used in most first movements – that inspired Mozart and Beethoven.
I appreciate Haydn more and more with each passing year, his optimistic, clear-eyed musical presence a welcome antidote to dour Brahms, neurotic Mahler or anxiety-ridden Shostakovich. His music brightens my day, and I present here some of my favorites.
We'll start with a couple of single movements, and with Haydn, you have to start with the string quartets and symphonies. So first, an ear-worm … the opening movement of one of his final quartets, No. 66 in G Major. This one gets stuck in my head every time I hear it.
Next, one of his most famous movements, the wake-'em-up surprise andante movement from his Symphony No. 94, "The Surprise." This tune that we all sang as kindergarteners is transformed from the naïve to a fully charged symphonic statement.
Next up, a finale … the last movement from one of his Paris symphonies, Symphony No. 82 in C Major. It is propelled along by a throbbing bass note, yet with Classical era restraint, Haydn never pushes to hard. The energy, the deft use of dynamics, the thematic hide-and-seek, the teasing lead-in to the coda all add up to the work of a master.
And the finale to what may be his greatest symphony, the last of his London symphonies, No. 104 in D Major. This was Haydn's symphonic finale, swaggering with elan, an amazing farewell. The racing counterpoint that layers up as it dashes to its thrilling conclusion is the rocket fuel that launched Beethoven – you almost can sense the passing of the baton.
Late in his long life, Haydn wrote a set of six extraordinary masses. Here is the opening to his Missa in Angustiis ("Mass for troubled times"), usually called "The Lord Nelson Mass." Unusual for its minor key opening, it bursts with energy, with a fierceness to its exhortation of "Kyrie eleison'" – "Lord have mercy." A live performance of this is a pretty hair-raising experience, and this recording is by my favorite Classical era conductor, John Elliott Gardiner.
And I end with a complete piano trio from one of my favorite set of recordings, the complete set by Haydn Trio Eisenstadt. This trio, No. 35 in A Major is some of the sunniest, most literally refreshing music I know.
Always fresh to my ears, the first movement, so accurately titled "capriccio," steps out happily with a wonderful sense of dialog between the musicians and a springtime breeziness.
The second movement, a minuet, is equally light on its feet, and the measured string responses to the staccato piano phrases are just right … the very definition of Haydn.
The finale completes the tone set by the opening movement, interplay and good cheer carried forward with a tunefulness that goes beyond mere facility.
I am so grateful Papa Haydn chose to serve us all cheerfully. Are you one of the legion of true fans? Or do you tip your cap to his role as the Papa and move on?