Poor Haydn. He tried so hard to establish himself as the original genius. Yet, two hundred years after his death only one Berkeley music student out of a class of eighty would venture a guess when asked to name one of his pieces (“um, the Surprise Symphony?”). On the other hand, if you ask the same class, “Why couldn’t Beethoven find his teacher?” without missing a beat, someone will snap back, “because he was Haydn!”
As the pun implies, we know Haydn by name, and only in relation to his role as the teacher—a role of which he was proud, to the point of having his contemporaries call him “Papa.” With some knowledge of his biography, we see another layer to the pun: much of Haydn’s career was spent in relative obscurity, “hiding” away on a remote estate in Hungary. Both of these factors—his role as the Father, and the environment in which he composed—explain his continued lack of recognition, particularly when placed next to his towering students, Mozart and Beethoven.
In his lifetime, Haydn watched the potential for musical immortality become greater than it had ever been. He was in London in the 1790s, witnessing the revival of Handel’s music, which would mark a shift in the musical environment towards political and populist concepts. A niche was emerging for the commemorated Music Hero, and Haydn intended to fill it. In his art, he began to highlight military motifs, scoring the wartime atmosphere of the 1790s with his “London Symphonies” including the Drumroll Symphony and the Military Symphony. He layered upon his reputation outside of his compositions as well, harnessing the power of cultural capital. He suggested Beethoven include the note, “pupil of Haydn” on his first compositions, the Opus 1 piano trios. Mozart, in an earlier and similar episode, had written his “Haydn Quartets” in honor of his “Father, Guide, and Friend!”
Haydn had no shame in giving his pupils a boost. In fact, he likely expected their success to, in turn, boost his reputation, as not just a mentor, but a prophet, a “creator” and herald of extraordinary talent. What he did not foresee, however, is that he was not serving as coattails to ride in on, but a springboard from which great artists would launch themselves, leaving him behind. To call oneself “Papa” is automatically desexualizing, especially when your young protégés are creating works like Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s thrusting Ninth Symphony.
That is not to say that Haydn’s music was not properly commemorated in its time. Carpani, who would later translate The Creation into Italian, wrote of the work’s 1798 premier, noting that it “commanded the perfect silence and scrupulous attention of the audience . . . a sentiment almost of religious devotion.” Another Haydn contemporary, ETA Hoffmann, would likewise call music “a form a worship.” This is a point that could only be reached with works like The Creation as a stepping-stone—works that command a religious rhetoric, and a Creator to set this atmosphere in motion.
Haydn was fully aware of his position as “The Creator.” After The Creation’s premier in Paris, he wrote, “the token of esteem with which you have honored me justifies my hope that perhaps I SHALL NOT WHOLLY DIE.” His role would immortalize him, yes, but by relegating himself to the realm of religious worship, he is consigned to the “traditional,” the safe, the moral—an aesthetic shackle that would prove problematic in a musical environment that would soon call for more subversive forms.
Summarizing ETA Hoffmann, Leon Botstein notes, “Mozart’s Romanticism offered a unique exit from the limits of musical classicism.” That is to say, Romanticism would embrace that which fell outside the boundaries of Haydn’s form. The Romantic Era is one marked by the abstract and by a penetrating examination of human emotion. Music would turn to instability, dissonance, rebellion—measures characteristic not of the rational father, but of the scowling, impetuous son. In sealing his image as the “Father,” Haydn damned himself out of relevance. Again, Botstien observes the nineteenth-century critical consensus that “even when Haydn deals with the sorrowful and the grim, he does so as a ‘loving father’ for whom balance and moderation are never lost.”
And yet, Mozart, another figure of classicism who in who fact shunned the “exaggerated and pompous” sublime aesthetic typical of romantic music, did not meet Haydn’s fate. While Mozart was easily appropriated both by classicists and romantics, Haydn, as Botstein puts it, “stayed in the same place.” What is it about Mozart’s music that allows for it to be co-opted?
Perhaps the answer can be traced back to the environment in which the music was composed. Haydn noted that, isolated as we was at the Esterhazy palace, he “was forced to be original.” But originality does not necessarily take into account commercial appeal. With the advent of musical publication and an emerging public of consumers, the period saw the rise of a commercial market for music, and commercial music to go with it. Perhaps because he was fired early on and needed to appease commercial tastes to make a living, Mozart honed a musical character that would appeal to a spectrum of listeners, from “connaiseurs” to “amateurs,” from kenner to liebhaben. In a letter to his father on December 28, 1782, Mozart acknowledged his intent to write in order to please both: “These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.”
To feel pleasure “without knowing why” is the essence of Mozartean Beauty. He draws our attention not to the complex scaffolding that supports the piece, but to the sensuous experience of listening to it. We feel his musical language without it being the main point. Haydn, on the other hand, is interested in alerting us to his witty technical doings by bringing them to the surface and buffering them with gimmickry. As Scott Burnham notes, “his thematic material less often sounds as its own raison d’être, more likely serving as an occasion for witty doings that throw the spotlight on the very machinery one rarely notices in Mozart.” The essence of Haydn’s music is to move the listener “from being manipulated to being aware of being manipulated,” whereas Mozart’s manipulates on a more subversive level. Like Don Giovanni, he seduces us without warning. Haydn, the Papa, the desexualized Creator, cannot seduce. Instead, he gets our attention by saying, “Hey, look I what I can do!”
Voltaire once said, “how pleasant it is for a father to sit at his child’s board. It is like an aged man reclining under the shadow of an oak which he has planted.” There is no shame in Haydn’s title of Papa; whether it has cast him into irrelevance or not, to be the wellspring of great artists is what he was after. He probably did not predict the “shadow” that his pupils would ultimately cast over his own musical legacy, but still, he can rest underneath it with satisfaction. The father is aged, but not weak. He is reclining, but not departed. As music and politics become increasingly apocalyptic, there is a chance that we will call upon the father figure again soon. We will beckon him back to restore order, stability, and logic . . . to make us laugh, to speak in a manner that is clear, if not obvious. For only the Father can comfort. And only the Creator can arrive in a time of darkness and say, “Let there be light.”