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Symphony Listening Diary—Haydn 94

I initially chose Rachmaninoff no. 2 as I ease back into this little project but was deterred by the one-hour duration. Haydn is another composer I'm a little ashamed to admit I've listened to almost nothing of so here’s my report on what I've been missing.


This was pure joy, really. I happen to know that this and the other London symphonies were written once Haydn had become a bit of an elder statesman and had a lifetime of technique and experience behind him, and as is the case when you witness mastery of any kind the result is elevated to something that demands your descriptions become a bit dubious. Sublime, a reminder of the goodness in our species, etc. I must avoid going into any musical detail here as I feel that you (or rather I) could learn something to keep you occupied for the next few months by taking any random four-bar sample and analysing it. I did open the score to have a closer look at what was going on and ended up listening to the entire thing over again, so to prevent this becoming a full essay and the workload deterring me from finishing this project (as has already happened), I must keep this concise.


Quickly, though, a part of the second movement where he does a kind of phrase-answering phrase thing with minor and major keys—not simply phrases—was very helpful. I like stuff like that that reminds you that simple building blocks you learn right at the start of your education are, first of all, just as valid and useful at Haydn’s level as they are in your grade-one theory exam, and second, applicable at higher and higher structural levels. You should never think yourself above the basics; it’s something I've learned plenty of times and forgot just as many, but you can use your imagination to ask whether a simple idea can be applied in a non-obvious way. if a phrase and contrasting phrase provide a means of formal organisation, for example, you could ask whether the phrases could be in different keys, or whether the same contrast principle could be applied between sections, or between movements, or whether you could augment the contract to an extent that the phrases appear to be juxtaposed, or whether the contrast could be durational, or stylistic, or registral, or timbral, or whatever. Just like that you might find yourself with the makings of a piece.


More broadly, I spent most of the time on this one thinking about Haydn’s ‘drama’. Anybody who is acquainted with the darkness is a pal of mine, so I was pleased to find that it wasn’t entirely absent despite the generally more ‘clean’ and couth nature of Classical-era music. It’s always brief, though, and the impression I have is that composers of this era follow it with reassurance, compared with Beethoven later once Romanticism and the poets and the heroic style and feelings and emotions blah blah, where the impression is that it has to be triumphed over. This is a massive difference and isn't necessarily due to Haydn being a more ‘reserved’ or conservative composer or person. Haydn spent most of his musical career as an employee of royalty, and his music had a purpose vastly different to that of any of the more bombastic music you can think that came after him. It’s too lazy to make inferences about what a composer was feeling based on their music, since the idea of direct emotional expression through composing music is at best far from the only reason people make music and at worst a fairly recent invention.


A peeve of mine is hearing people talk about Bach’s music as if it’s Schubert–wow, what must he have been feeling here. We privilege our position in history if we fail to imagine that there other ways of thinking about things. Bach’s music is obviously supremely emotional (Bach is the pinnacle of music, as I am prone to saying), but for various reasons it doesn’t really make sense to think of him exorcising his own emotions through his compositions. For a start much of the music was similarly written as an employee. Second, musical thinking was still based in the idea from Plato and the Greeks of it serving a medicinal purpose (see the affections) and third there's probably more to think about regarding Bach’s deep religiosity and the idea of the human being the servant rather than interesting and precious enough for their thoughts and feelings to serve as the main topic of interest as in later Romantic music and beyond. The emotion in Bach comes from hearing something so perfect, so packed with imagination and invention and so harmonious and so intricate, that you glimpse something superhuman, supernatural, or, maybe (I'm meeting this word on its own terms), divine. Allegedly.


That is all to say that you can get more reward from something by at least attempting to meet it on its own terms. It’s not even really fair to make assumptions about the society and the culture from the music. It’s easy to imagine a bunch of repressed people forever evoking ‘polite society’ and nervously producing their fans upon being assaulted with more than eight bars of minor-key music in succession, but that’s almost certainly not accurate. Maybe life was so bleak in the time before the invention of medicine that actually works that they didn’t want or need to be reminded of the darkness, that a night at the concert hall was possibly a chance for a brief escape from the punishment of existence. I'm aware that silence and reverence wasn’t always the expectation during performances and that people would cheer and demand repeats, so maybe a performance of a symphony like this was more like a non-Classical concert as we would think of it now rather than an experience people head into with the expectation of being moved to tears.


But then the fact is that this was art presided over by powerful institutions. Whether the result is good or not, is it objectively better to have an art centred around personal expression, as nice and generous as those institutions might be? I watched the BBC doc about Mary Whitehouse a while ago which served as a bit of a history of television in this country, and it made me think about how mediums and art forms and movements seem to follow to follow the exact same script of institutions and upper classes setting the initial terms, the consumers it relies upon eventually wondering why they can’t have a piece of it, innovators gradually nudging the boundaries of acceptability outward before finally following a series of revolutions the proletariat find themselves represented and there is almost no subject matter that it is not ok to explore. Television was introduced here slightly patronisingly as a public good, standup, radio, popular music, cinema, all initially subject to the dictates of institutions and powerful people (more precisely Victorian sensibilities, I'm imagining, for the cases since the nineteenth century) before us meddling humans show up and inject ourselves and the things we really think about on a day-to-day basis into them and censorship is defeated. Thank you, Esterházy family, for your support and generosity, but we will write the music we want to write.


But then I realised that I’d caught myself in the exact type of thinking that leads to those kind of nonfiction bestsellers that are despised by academics in the topic’s field, namely of placing a narrative over history that makes for a compelling story but isn't really true (here’s one example I learned about recently on the If Books Could Kill podcast , but you could also see every single thing ever written by Malcolm Gladwell), so in a plot twist I ended up thinking about a different question entirely. You can easily think of things that debunk my little history, from the fact that smut has always existed, to the fact that there are plenty of mediums that travel the opposite path from being a supposedly ‘low’ artform to becoming high (I can think of the novel and the internet off the top of my head), to the fact that right now there are other places in the world where there is either more or less censorship no matter where you are, to the fact that taboos vary from culture to culture anyway.

I believe it’s well known by now that the linear-progress view of history does not withstand scrutiny, and if we viewed our species’ entire 70,000-year history maybe we’d see that far from us closing in on some ultimate form of society where we are all finally free from censorship and the will of institutions, the power balance instead fluctuates, locking us forever in an endless battle for self-expression where like at the end of Twin Peaks and we realise that there is no end but it’s our duty to detach ourselves from the outcome and continue doing it anyway because it’s right. Now the question has evolved into a stranger one altogether.


I think it’s very important to purge that kind of thinking from yourself. It’s almost reflexive to privilege our time in history, as objective knowledge that nothing in nature compels us to keep getting more humane and noble and cool over time can't really conquer the bias that obviously the present feels real while the past is just words and stories, but when you allow yourself the convenience of neat stories you become susceptible to good storytellers and to conspiratorial thinking. There is no reason things have to fit neatly into a story. History has the right to make no sense, to be untidy, and to keep recycling plot points and characters to an implausible degree, and we have to fight the part of us that is uncomfortable with this where possible. Being aware of our limitations is good (the difference between a million and a billion is roughly a billion, for example, despite them seeming about the same as they’re both, for our purposes, just very big numbers. Past a certain scale we can't rely on instinct and feelings for judgement), questions are good, asking how you might be wrong is good. There are too many questions, and this is precisely why it’s so important to have art to challenge you. You are asked to think beyond the immediate.

I'm fully aware that I've lost my train of thought, so if you're reading this before I've been back through to revise it, I apologise.


That's where this Haydn symphony led me. I was very surprised that of all the examples I've listened to so far this one had the most profound effect on me. Maybe I was need of an escape from art that is personal expression without realising. I've almost quadrupled the 500-word limit I flatly said I would not exceed mere paragraphs ago and there is still more to say.

Finally, I was meant to talk about concision, but I suppose I've lost my right even to use that word. But I did like the concision. Brevity takes skill ('I didn't have time to write a short letter', Mark Twain said), and this is about as lean as it can get. Absolutely nothing wasted, which I suppose is a product of calibrating his writing over the course of a lifetime to the pleasing of his employers (uh oh, now I've utterly refuted my case for being free from institutions. Questions are good). Whatever. Who knows. That just raises further questions!

I still have Bruckner to come, which I suppose is what I deserve.

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