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Category: music

Because He was Hidin’


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.”


If you’re happy and you know it, do not clap your hands . . .



If you flip to the second-to-last page of a concert program at the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra, you will find a warning: “In a multi-movement work, it is customary to wait until the end of the last movement to applaud, so as not to break the concentration of the performers.” According the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the note’s origins are a mystery—it has been in the program “for as long as anyone at the PSO can remember,” leaving us without the option to ask its author to substantiate his claim. Waiting to applaud is customary since when? So as not to break the concentration of what performers? Emanuel Ax, who himself will appear with the PSO this summer, asks for just the opposite during his performances: “I am always a little taken aback when I hear the first movement of a concerto which is supposed to be full of excitement, passion, and virtuoso display (like the Brahms or Beethoven Concertos), and then hear a rustling of clothing, punctuated by a few coughs; the sheer force of the music calls for a wild audience reaction.”

Classical music performance is predicated upon the ideal of preserving centuries-old art forms; the nuances of receiving this art, however, are harder to maintain. A movement or thematic episode that was provocative 200 years ago may now be cliché or antique. The avant-garde, when played on loop, unravels into kitsch; Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” becomes Elmer Fudd’s “Kill the Wabbit.”

And as the PSO’s no-applause decree shows, it is not just the connotations of art that change, but also the etiquette of receiving that art. In Mozart’s time, it was expected that an audience would cheer at their favorite parts of a piece, and certainly that they would erupt into applause in the pause after an especially engaging movement. Mozart wrote to his friends about pieces that, by audience demand, had to be encored immediately. He famously wrote to his father about a particular part of his “Paris” Symphony which prompted a “tremendous burst of applause” when that passage was revisited during a “da capo” section (a repeat of material from the beginning).

Today, scholars have no idea which passage Mozart was referring to (though we all have our guesses, which reveal our own tastes more than Mozart’s). What is significant is not that this fabulous Da Capo is some elusive moment that today’s audience cannot hear, but rather it is any number of moments in the piece that today’s audience cannot respond to with the abandon of an 18th-century Parisian audience. The understanding that the audience would engage with and respond to the music was part of Mozart’s composition process, as evidenced by his considerations and predictions of their tastes. If classical music performance aims to respect what is “customary,” to remain true to the composer, who are we (or the program writers at PSO) to deny the composer what Mozart calls “the effect it would surely produce”?

And yet, these days a shout of “Da Capo!” from the audience would result in the immediate removal of the uncultured heckler. (Unless, of course, he disguised his call in a whomping cough during the pause between movements that once allowed room for the audience’s reactions but have now become awkward, makeshift cough breaks). Perhaps if we were allowed to express our enjoyment of the music throughout, as in Mozart’s day, rather than after sitting in stiff silence for two hours, Mozart’s elusive passage will make itself more obvious. The Da Capo mystery cannot be solved without the crucial audience dynamic—the collective consciousness in which we feed off each others’ enjoyment, in which we take clues from others about when to laugh during a comedy show, when to cheer during a political rally, and when to hack up a lung during an orchestra concert (if not between movements, then during the haunting pianissimo section of a RomanceLarghetto movement). Emanuel Ax notes, “I think that if there were no “rules” about when to applaud, we in the audience would have the right response almost always. Most composers trust their listeners to respond at the right time…” The composition and those who perform it on stage constitute only half the musical performance equation. To silence the audience is to silence the most essential instrument in a symphony.


Chopin Map
On March 10, 2010, I rang in Frédéric Chopin’s 200th birthday at UC Berkeley by surprising my Polish class with gingerbread and monopolizing the chalkboard with the mammoth message: “Wszystkiego najlepszego z okazji urodzin Chopina!” My excitement provoked a few bemused smirks, but otherwise no one seemed impressed that the musical hero of Poland has remained relevant for two centuries.

But considering his music’s precarious role throughout Poland’s history, it’s a wonder that Chopin’s legacy remains. As a political exile in France after 1830, Chopin crafted musical collections including dozens of “mazurkas” and “polonaises” to commemorate the Polish culture that, for decades, had been stifled by wars, failed uprisings, and foreign occupations. Due to its inherent “Polishness,” his music repeatedly faced the same threats of erasure endured by the nation itself. Public performances of his works were censured under tsarist rule in the 19th century. In the 20th century, his music was banned under Nazi occupation. It is no wonder, then, that in a finally free and independent Poland, the Polish people cherish his enduring legacy as a hallmark of Polish resilience. Nor is it any wonder that in 2010, Chopin’s name would carry more celebrity in his homeland than it did when he left Warsaw 180 years before.

I hadn’t planned to end up in Warsaw for the Chopin bicentenary celebrations, but it’s a welcome twist of fate that I did. I have always been a classical music fan but have been particularly devoted to Chopin’s music for the past several years. So I nearly squealed with delight when I landed at Warsaw Frederic Chopin Airport (yes, this is really its name) and found the city wallpapered with announcements for nonstop concerts, festivals, and tours in celebration of “His Year.”

Without allowing time even to overcome jet lag, I went to work. I wore my shoes to the heel running around town snapping photos of all the Chopin posters I could find. In broken Polish, I asked shop owners and the random passersby to capture me posing precariously next to his name, or holding my hand at just the right angle so that his head would appear to be floating on my palm. I snacked on Chopin chocolates while sitting on Chopin musical benches, which, at the press of a button, would play 30 second clips of his compositions. I watched presidential campaign commercials on loop, not in interest of the historic election, but because the ads were often scored by Chopin etudes and preludes. When given the choice of city transit cards, I chose the commemorative Chopin design. I toured the Chopin museum, joined a busload of French tourists and made my pilgrimage to his birthplace at Zelazowa Wola, then was nearly kicked out for sitting at the piano while a Portuguese man snapped photos of me pretending to be Freddie. I treated the Chopin kiosk on Nowy Swiat like my own personal church. I would sit in the only chair in the corner, hands folded piously in my lap as I watched Chopin videos play for hours. They broadcasted everything in there, from a music video re-enacting the destruction of Chopin’s piano to Latin dancers tangoing across Chopin airport to a waltz remix. I bought books and CDs knowing all proceeds went to the Chopin Institute, and traipsed around Warsaw with armfuls of brochures and tourist maps with names like “Chopin’s Warsaw” or “In Chopin’s Footsteps.” And I walked in his footsteps, let me tell you. I saw his sister’s apartment, his university, his heart in the Holy Cross church. On SundaysI would attend the Chopin concerts at Lazienki Park with eager dedication. There, I would lie on the grass and close my eyes and half-expect to see visions of wiry hair and a crooked nose. I felt like a child on Halloween, running from neighborhood to neighborhood collecting as many treats as I could and gobbling them up in quick succession.

But within three weeks, the queasiness set in. It began when I saw a tourist in a gift shop unwrap a Chopin truffle, sniff it, then put it back on the shelf for someone else to buy. It was then that I thought Varsovians might not be as stoked on Chopin as all the publicity made them out to be. Maybe Chopin is for them what Pier 39 is to San Franciscans, or Times Square is to New Yorkers. Maybe what began as a crest of Polish culture has become as ubiquitous and unoriginal as an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt. No matter how remarkable a historical icon is, if you are bombarded by it, and if you see it tainted by ravenous tourists, it begins to lose its appeal. And maybe it was the same with Chopin.

My own Chopin binge had left me feeling a bit perverse. I once saw a poster that was nothing more than a sketch of an eyeball and I knew instantly that it was Chopin’s eyeball. I don’t know that I would recognize my own mother’s eyeball, yet there I was, snapping a photo of Chopin’s graphite eye to add to my collection.

For my last few days in Warsaw, I decided to take it easy on the Chopinafilia. I resisted the urge to photograph every concert poster I saw. I didn’t obsessively replay the musical benches and I stopped admiring my Chopin transit card before going to bed at night. Instead of following his two hundred year old footsteps in my now-tattered shoes, I spent time visiting non-Chopin museums, attending film festivals instead of music festivals, strolling through Lazienki Park on weekdays rather than concert weekends, and glumly preparing myself to say good-bye to what had quickly become my new home.

I spent my last night in Warsaw sharing hot fudge sundaes with my roommates at Wedel Chocolate Shop in the city center. Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” came on the café radio, prompting two Polish women in a booth next to ours to chat about an upcoming Chopin festival that would last 31 days and feature over 2,000 performers. Overhearing this, I smiled to myself, realizing at once that I could finally understand words like “twothousand” and “performers” and “fantastic!” and that I could welcome Chopin back into my diet. Chopin’s year was not just for tourists. On the contrary, it provoked in the locals the same thrill that I had experienced when stammering out grammatically atrocious requests for concert tickets at the beginning of my stay. Perhaps the Varsovians I passed in the street had been speaking about Chopin’s year this whole time, it just took me six weeks to understand.

After taking one last stroll around Centrum, my roommates and I approached the tram platform for our final ride back to our apartment. To their confusion, I didn’t board the tram, but opted for the hour-long walk home instead. It was late, and I had a flight the next morning, but this was my last night in Warsaw in 2010, His Year. Marszalkowska Street was lined with fresh Chopin posters advertising the next wave of concerts and exhibits in his memory, and I couldn’t leave Warsaw without relishing the scene.

Yes, plastering his face all over the city might be overkill. But even after these centuries, even after partitions and wars that took Poland off the map, even after this city was systematically destroyed then systematically rebuilt, Chopin’s music still echoes in its parks and halls. His heart still rests in Warsaw. And these days, back home in my Chopinless town, I wonder if mine does too.