Wednesday 20 September 2017

Classic talk: Seeking out the Haydn who almost got away

George Hamilton

It was a text to the radio show the other week that got me thinking. A Dublin listener, Michael Conaghan, was reminding me of the place Michael Haydn occupies in the musical canon. The younger of the Haydn brothers is quite neglected, he wrote.

So, I played part of one of Michael Haydn's two trumpet concertos and, when I got home, I decided to dust off his catalogue and delve into the contribution he made to the classical collection.

Joseph Haydn was the big brother in every way. Five years older, he was the artistic trailblazer, coaxing new ideas into life, virtually inventing the symphony as we know it today, composing more than a hundred of them (even Beethoven left it at nine) and earning himself a mighty nickname - 'the Shakespeare of music'.

There were actually three Haydn boys - the youngest, Johann, was a singer - but it was the elder two who would leave their mark.

Home was a village between Vienna and Bratislava but when they found out Joseph could sing, Vienna was the only place he would go. This was the 18th-century equivalent of a career path.

Aged only seven, Joseph went off to join the choir of St Stephen's Cathedral and, in due course, Michael followed. The only problem was: what happened when a boy's voice broke?

I never cease to be amazed by the parallels between the two strands of my working life. These days, if a young lad is a talented footballer, he may end up in the academy of a mega-millions club. That, though, is no guarantee that he's on the path to riches.

Back then in Vienna, getting the gig as a boy soprano held no promise of a key to the door of the big musical world beyond.

Fortunately for the Haydn boys, when the upper register proved beyond them, they still had enough in their locker to help them to the further shore. They developed into successful musicians.

Joseph was hired by the Esterházys, an aristocratic family in Austria-Hungary, to run their house band. There, he developed the ideas that would earn him the accolade of 'father of the symphony'.

Michael went off to the east to get experience in what is now Romania. His reputation grew and doors opened. He then took the opportunity to move to Salzburg, in Austria, to become director of music at the court there.

This was the Salzburg of the Mozarts. Wolfgang Amadeus would have been seven at the time, about to be taken touring by his father, Leopold, who viewed the child prodigy - who'd already written scores and performed for the Empress in Vienna - as a resource to be exploited.

Michael Haydn ploughed his own furrow, producing a whole range of music, matching Mozart in his output of symphonies, and composing a vast array of smaller-scale pieces besides.

Much of what you might hear of him these days is sacred music. Encyclopaedia Britannica describes him as "one of the most accomplished composers of church music in the later 18th century". Wikipedia list 47 Masses alone.

Michael Haydn and Mozart were friends and collaborators, and there's plenty of evidence that Mozart was influenced by the older man. His Requiem follows the path laid out in Michael Haydn's earlier version.

To top it all, one of Mozart's symphonies - his 37th - isn't really his at all. It's Michael Haydn's 25th, with the odd touch-up here and there. Great minds thinking alike, no doubt.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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