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Papa Haydn and his Performers

Although music publishing, in particular that geared toward the amateur performer, and subscription concerts were becoming viable commercial outlets, secular courts and churches still provided the most secure form of livelihood for musicians in the eighteenth century.

The lot of the freelance musician was much like that of the contemporary self-published author: widely varying in terms of financial remuneration and the artist’s ability to make a living.

Even Mozart, typically characterized as a free artist in the Romantic sense of the term, vied for such a position, disappointed only that a position at the imperial court of Joseph II would not afford him the salary he wanted.

In a letter to a friend in Prague inn 1787, Haydn, greatly impressed by the younger man’s talent, lamented Mozart’s position. “It angers me that this unique Mozart is still not engaged by any imperial or royal court.”

Twenty years earlier, however, composers, singers, and instrumentalists still largely depended upon the church or a secular court for a living. The demand for music and musicians being so great, it is no surprise that performers were not always up to snuff.

As far back as the sixteenth century, Monteverdi had complained of performers who were unable to perform ornaments satisfactorily or omitted them altogether; and as late as the 1760s, Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang’s father, was to make a similar complaint about singers who could not sight-sing, had a limited singing range, or had trouble with rhythm.

Given the wide range of talent available, it’s no surprise that composers from Monteverdi to Haydn typically requested that musicians be allowed to look over the score at least several hours before a performance and rehearse the work at least once. Working closely with performers meant not only taking advantage of the capabilities of the virtuoso, but taking into account the severe limitations of the least talented performer in the troupe.

In my last post, The Divertimento in the Abbey,  I mentioned that an early reader strongly objected to a scene where Haydn rehearses a piece with a group of professional musicians. The truth, however, is that not every performer was created equal, and Haydn, his contemporaries, and forbears frequently had to deal with musicians and singers who would not make it to any graduate music program in the country let alone a Philharmonic orchestra.

There’s an interesting anecdote from Haydn’s time in London that nicely illustrates this fact. In the 1790s, after the death of his employer, Prince Nikolaus, Haydn, although still receiving a salary,  had no musical obligations to the Esterhazy family. Johann Peter Salomon, a German violinist and impresario who had moved to London, was traveling through the continent at the time, in search of singers for the King’s Theater. As soon as he heard the news, he presented himself to the great composer, and asked to take him to London.

The orchestra at the newly renovated King’s Theater consisted of professional musicians—that is to say, musicians who relied upon music for their livelihood instead of cultivating the art, as did members of many a royal and noble family, merely for pleasure.

They were practicing what’s been come to be known as the Oxford Symphony, No. 92 in G. The short adagio that opens the symphony begins with three repeated notes. No sooner had the orchestra begun when Haydn shook his head. No, no, that wasn’t quite right, the repeated shakes of his head said.

They tried again. Again, Haydn interrupted. They had commenced the piece a third time and been interrupted a third time, when a German cellist whispered to his neighbor: “If he doesn’t like even the first three notes, how will it be with the rest!”

Haydn, hearing the German words, explained himself in faltering English. He requested as a favor, he said, something that was wholly in their power. He had not the English to properly explain his intention, but perhaps he could demonstrate on the violin.

In the words of Albert Christoph Dies, one of Haydn’s earliest biographers, he “praised [his musicians] and interwove reprimand, when it was necessary, with praise in the subtlest fashion. . . so that out of love for him they rose to the level of inspiration required for the performance of a Haydn work. . .”

Interpreting music requires more of the performer than a correct interpretation of pitch and rhythm. The texture of sound the composer has in mind and his deeper intentions must be understood for a truly remarkable performance. Take a listen to four different performances of the same work, and you’ll hear four different interpretations. Even the most detailed score, you see, lends itself to subtle differences in interpretation.

Would a composer in close contact with his performers, then, not take every opportunity to communicate his intention to his musicians? I rather think that he would.

eighteenth century music, Haydn, musicians, performers, rehearsal

  1. Kaye George says:

    Our church choir, in conjunction with a few others, is rehearsing to do a world premiere in October and the composer attends the rehearsals. He doesn’t interfere, just sits by. Meanwhile, the conductor is making changes to the music on the fly! The composer seems like a nice, easy-going guy, but if I were him, I wouldn’t show up at rehearsals!

  2. Nupur says:

    Yes, isn’t it strange how the composer gets sidelined these days? People are often surprised that Haydn, a composer, would have conducted at all. But who better to do so?

  3. Loved this, Nupur, and I have a question. Did you find out what the reaction of the orchestra was when he demonstrated what he wanted?

    Marilyn (aka cj petterson)

  4. Nupur says:

    Thanks, Marilyn. They fortunately did exactly as he asked. Haydn would frequently invite them over for dinner, and seemed to know how to win performers over to his side. He inspired them sufficiently, that they strove to impress him. As a Kapellmeister- Director of Music- he had already learned how to manage singers and instrumentalists, and he was always able to do it with tact. So, what he faced in London was nothing new.

  5. I love concerts performed in churches. I have attended several performances by “Anonymous 4” an group of four (highly educated) women who sing a capella and only perform in churches. The acoustics are incredible and the surrounding architecture lends another layer of gravitas. Beautiful.
    Thank you for another informative post!

  6. Nupur says:

    Thanks, Micki. I love a capella performances, too.

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