On Haydn

“Monday Musings” for Monday April 4, 2016
Volume VI, No. 14/274





Happy Birthday, Papa Joseph!

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, ScD (Hon.), DLFAPA*

We tried to be on time celebrating Maestro Franz Joseph Hayden’s birthday, but we are four days late. Joseph Haydn was born on March 31, 1732. Four days ago, those of us Haydn-lovers celebrated his 284th natal anniversary. By serendipity, a quartet from Marinus Musical Ensemble, led by violist Rachel Yonan of Pennsylvania performed Haydn’s famous composition The Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church of Raleigh on Good Friday, March 25, 2016, with Pastor John Yates III, the Cambridge educated rector of the church offering meditations that paralleled the ethereal music in its beauty and precision. Before we continue with Haydn’s life and music permit me to say a few words about The Seven Last Words of Our Savior On the Cross (German: Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze). What is not very well known is that Haydn was a great writer and story teller. I am going to let the maestro himself tell the story of how the piece was created:

“Some fifteen years ago I was requested by a canon of Cádiz to compose instrumental music on The Seven Last Words of Our Savior On the Cross. It was customary at the Cathedral of Cádiz to produce an oratorio every year during Lent, the effect of the performance being not a little enhanced by the following circumstances. The walls, windows, and pillars of the church were hung with black cloth, and only one large lamp hanging from the center of the roof broke the solemn darkness. At midday, the doors were closed and the ceremony began. After a short service the bishop ascended the pulpit, pronounced the first of the seven words (or sentences) and delivered a discourse thereon. This ended, he left the pulpit and fell to his knees before the altar. The interval was filled by music. The bishop then in like manner pronounced the second word, then the third, and so on, the orchestra following on the conclusion of each discourse. My composition was subject to these conditions, and it was no easy task to compose seven adagios lasting ten minutes each, and to succeed one another without fatiguing the listeners; indeed, I found it quite impossible to confine myself to the appointed limits.’” We know that the seven main meditative sections—labelled “sonatas” and all slow—are framed by an Introduction and a speedy “Earthquake” conclusion, for a total of nine movements.”

The priest who commissioned the work, Don José Sáenz de Santa María, had reconditioned the Oratorio de la Santa Cueva, and paid Haydn in a most unusual way – sending the composer a cake which Haydn discovered was filled with gold coins. “The Seven Last Words” was written in 1786 when Haydn was 54 years old. It debuted in Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and of course Spain, a year later in 1787, when he was 55 years old,. Haydn specialists believe that composing The Seven Last Words had a penetrating and lasting effect on Haydn. From his symphony number 88 composed in 1787 onto his last symphony number 104, musicologists such as Joseph Kerman, suspect that he used phrases from The Seven Last Words of Christ. It had a lasting and tendentious effect on him and the architectonics of his subsequent compositions. Such was the power of Easter as an epoch making phenomenon deeply effecting Papa Joseph, a deeply religious man and composer. Besides being an unappalled symphonist (composed 104 symphonies), and prose writer Haydn was a prodigious opera composer. His 14 operas are a part of the repertoire of many opera houses including La Scala and the Met. Our own Raleigh WCPE, Classical Music station played his opera number six, L’infedeltà delusa (Deceit Outwitted) debuted in 1773, on Thursday March 31, Haydn’s birthday.

Haydn was one of three boys born to Mathias Haydn and Anna Maria Koller. His father was a master wheelwright who loved music. He played the harp, while Haydn’s mother sang the melodies. Anna Maria was a cook for Count Karl Anton Harrach before she married Mathias. Haydn’s brother, Michael, also composed music and became relatively famous. His youngest brother, Johann Evangelist, sang tenor in the church choir of the Esterhazy Court. The entire family was musical. Apple falls not far from the tree…

Joseph was according to most psychobiographers and musicologist, such as respected Maynard Solomon and Joseph T. Kerman, was a ”good” and least neurotic person. He had an ordinary childhood. At age 8, he was recruited to sing in the choir at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna where he went on to learn to play violin and keyboard. With the onset of adolescence and change of voice he had to leave the choir. He supported himself by teaching and playing the violin, while studying counterpoint and harmony. Haydn soon became an assistant to composer Nicola Porpora in exchange for lessons, and in 1761 he was named Kapellmeister, or “court musician,” at the palace of the influential Esterházy family, a position that would financially support him for nearly 30 years. Isolated at the palace from other composers and musical trends, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original.” This is a good example of Haydn’s humility and self-effacing mannerism.

Maestro Haydn was open, generous, welcoming, encouraging, enhancing, and growth promoting to his students, friends and even strangers. He and Mozart, 24 years his junior, were good friends. Haydn often bragged on Mozart and encouraged Mozart’s creativity and genius. Haydn, often astonished by Mozart exclaimed to Leopold Mozart, “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Haydn also was a teacher to Beethoven, a sordid story which will be told later. Beethoven was a habitual liar and cheated Haydn out of tuition fees and sums of monies that Haydn had loaned him when he was in financial despair. In spite of all Beethoven’s psychopathic behavior, Haydn would write letters of recommendation and welcomed his incorrigible student to his home giving him dinners and clothing. This was an example of Haydn’s generosity. Haydn’s mortal anniversary is May 31, 1809. He was 77 years old.

As an aside in more contemporary times, a good parallel to Haydn’s largess and generosity is Alexander Borodin, the Russian composer (November 12, 1833 to February 27, 1887) and Professor of Biochemistry and Medicine, who often ended up at night sleeping on the floor or on the couch because his friends, colleagues and students would be occupying his house and spending the night after dinner while the professor was making teaching rounds at the hospital and working in his biochemistry laboratory.

As a psychiatrist, I discourage excesses and addictive behavior. But it is quite alright to develop a reckless passion for the arts, opera, and classical music. Get addicted to Papa Haydn’s 14 operas and 104 symphonies. Happy birthday to Maestro Franz Joseph Haydn! We love you.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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