A late-night Prom in July 2005: Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s London Baroque Soloists are spinning their way through the finale of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C major. The music arrives at a definitive fanfare in the home key and stops. The promenaders begin to applaud – only to hear Sir John shout ‘It’s not finished!’ Nor is it, for after four silent bars, the movement quietly picks up in the remotest key, wandering through all manner of byways before getting back on what is surely the home straight. But then it all happens again: same stop, same audience reaction, same continuation. Without letting on, Sir John has gone straight into a repeat of the movement’s second half, as Haydn asks. Accordingly, when the real ending does arrive, the audience is reluctant to applaud lest it be caught out a third time – which, by that very reluctance, it duly has been.
Haydn’s notoriety as a prankster has not always enhanced his reputation. Even during his long and successful lifetime (1732-1809), there were more solemn music-lovers, including Austria’s Emperor Joseph II no less, who regarded such quirks as beneath the dignity of music. In the 19th century, Haydn’s jokes were widely heard as tokens of genial superficiality, and only a fraction of his vast output kept a toehold in the repertoire. Even today, there are many who would hesitate to place Haydn’s achievement on a par with his admiring friend Mozart or his unruly pupil Beethoven. The Mozart myth of the doomed young genius, or the Beethoven image of the Titan battling against Fate, seem much more romantic than the story of the humbly born choirboy and jobbing musician, who rises through servitude to independence by means of self-education and sheer hard work to become the most highly regarded composer in Europe.
And after all, nothing dates more quickly than humour. Yet here, over two centuries after its composition, was an arrangement of notes which, without the aid of any programme or extra-musical explanation (Sir John Eliot’s mid-performance expostulation aside), left that Proms audience abuzz with bemusement and delight once it realised the subtlety with which its expectations had been subverted.
Haydn’s jokes, in fact, are rarely mere buffooneries of the loud-bang-to-wake-up-the-listener kind. They almost always turn upon some shrewd insight into the way musical processes are perceived – as, for instance, in the triple-time finale of his late Piano Sonata in A major, H. XVI:51 (1794), where the phrasing, rhythm and harmony get so rapidly out of sync that between bars 12 and 15 one experiences a sort of musical vertigo. Nor did he contrive these effects only for fun. Part of the mystery of the slow introduction to the Symphony No. 103 (Drumroll) lies in the fact that the ear is left uncertain at first whether the music is in duple or triple time. And when the sprightly main theme of the finale of the String Quartet in E flat, Op. 33 No. 2 (1781), ultimately fragments and sputters out, we may smile, but the effect is genuinely expressive in its pathos. For all his transcendent mastery, one will scarcely find this kind of musical wit in Mozart, whose creative temperament was very different from Haydn’s, while Beethoven’s humour sounds galumphing by comparison.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Haydn’s musical language is the extent to which it was self-created. Of course, its basic elements were the same as those of any other mid-18th-century composer: tonal harmonies and key structures, balanced phrases, token snatches of counterpoint, use of genres such as minuet, aria, sonata, divertimento, and so on. What was evident quite early on was the idiosyncratic angle from which he approached these conventional elements and the quite exceptional focus and drive with which he pursued his predilections. By his middle years, it had already become commonplace to praise Haydn not only for his inexhaustible inventiveness but, above all, for his originality.
Not that Haydn’s idiosyncratic approach to musical rhetoric was quickly achieved. No doubt his years as a St Stephen’s Cathedral choirboy in Vienna imbued him with the feeling for counterpoint that he was later to put to such vigorous use. Yet it was not until he was almost 40 years old and Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family that his self-taught style burst forth with the force of genius in his so-called Sturm und Drang (‘storm and stress’) symphonies and string quartets. Suddenly his composing seemed fraught with fierce intentness, obscure keys, dark moods, stark textures, abrupt stops and starts. Symphony No. 45 in F sharp minor (Farewell), written to indicate his players’ increasing restlessness at an overlong stay at Prince Esterházy’s summer palace, is the most famous of these for its unexpectedly serene ending in which the players gradually leave the stage. But the implacable onrush of the opening movement, the lonely hush of its Adagio and grim tread of its minuet are quite as striking.
Haydn never lost his sense of the radical, but seems to have concluded thereafter that it was kinder to his listeners to insinuate his bolder strokes under the disguise of a more popular style. So the ground was laid for the unprecedented synthesis of the Paris and London symphonies in the late 1780s and ’90s. By his early 70s, he had accumulated in his symphonies, quartets, piano trios, piano sonatas, and the late choral works, five such inexhaustible bodies of music that his relative failure as an opera composer hardly seems to matter. Add to this his far-reaching development of the string quartet as a vehicle for the most concentrated and intimate musical expression, and his originating of such forms as so-called double variations, and he stands among the half-dozen most decisive and inexhaustible figures in the history of Western music. Where Haydn is concerned, ‘It’s not finished’ indeed.