Cher Public

The good, the bad and the Haydn

Susan GrahamThe transgressive filmmaker John Waters writes in his book Shock Value: “there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.” Personally, I fancy myself a connoisseur of good bad taste; and, in a striking program at Carnegie Hall last night, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (OSL), with guest vocalist Susan Graham, brought together a wide array of musical proclivities—good and good bad taste alike. 

The program positioned the steady, somewhat vicious perversity of Purcell and Britten within the polite elegance of two Haydn symphonies. On first glance, this is the kind of programming I would normally prefer to truncate (do we really need two Haydn symphonies?) It feels a bit like having to eat your vegetables when pizza and ice cream wait in the kitchen. However, the actual experience provoked an altogether more complex response.

As much as I should celebrate Haydn, for the sake of critical integrity I have to admit he leaves me cold. I find him to be more impressive than moving, and I appreciate his compositions mostly within the context of music history—the “father of the symphony,” his relation to Mozart, and his instruction of Beethoven: two composers I would much rather spend time with.

In other words, I often skip over Haydn in search of something darker, more robust, ruder—shameful, probably—but, all the same, this question of taste is hard to account for: love is blind, and the last time I checked listening to music is supposed to be fun.

That being said, fun was not what I expected to have as I settled into my seat at Stern Auditorium. And yet, under the direction of Nicholas McGegan, Orchestra of St. Luke’s essayed two Hayden symphonies—beginning the program with Symphony No. 75, and closing with Symphony No. 98—with vigor and élan, inducing a sensation not dissimilar to fun. I was pleased.

And, as the program notes from last night’s concert indicate, Haydn’s contemporary reviewers described his music as such: “pleasing” and “scientific,” words that obviously still apply. Scientific. Pleasing. Apt descriptors, certainly, but not quite noteworthy either; it’s hardly the kind of characterization that provokes hunger and fanaticism from an audience, especially one tediously working its way through our current post-modern malaise.

Yes Haydn is pleasing, and the precise construction of his compositions gives credence to the claim scientific, but with all the music there is to hear, why waste time being so well behaved? It’s this politeness I resist, this pleasing and scientific good taste.

However, to jump to these conclusions is to ignore the effects generated by the concert’s keen programming. Indeed, for Haydn provided an ideal counterbalance to the deranged material that constituted the evening’s heart of darkness—the good bad taste I’ve been waiting to tell you about.

I am sure that some will carp at my claim of Purcell for the camp of good bad taste. But, as Susan Graham’s fine, measured singing (though, at times, hindered by the use of a music stand) of “Bess of Bedlam,” “Music for a While,” and “When I am laid” from Dido and Aeneas attested, Purcell is anything but square.

Lovesick, melancholic, cruel—Purcell’s invocations of madness, intoxication, and erotic expiration stood in stark contrast to the refined gentility of Hayden. Indeed, these three pieces probe experiences of erotic fixation, it’s illusory reprieve, and the underlying elements of shame embedded within Eros and melancholy.

From Bess’s mad, outlawed alienation, through the hypnotic, insistent continuo of “Music for a While,” to the degraded Liebestod of Dido’s Lament, Purcell’s musical imagination borders a stance of TMI (too much information!), exposing an interiority of abjection and estranged suffering.

The squeamishness that Purcell provoked was amped up even further after the intermission with Graham’s performance of Benjamin Britten’s cantata Phaedra, in which the singer displayed the more muscular elements of her mezzo-soprano. Here, Britten’s opening measures struck the listener like swift arrows sprung from cupid’s bow, sinking their sharp wedges into Phaedra’s pliant heart.

Yes, poor wounded Phaedra, cougar and MILF par excellence. Britten’s cantata, taken from the seventeenth-century Racine play (translated by poet Robert Lowell), distills the drama to a singular voice, compressing the play’s five acts to a biting fifteen minutes.

Married to Theseus, Phaedra burns for his son (by another woman), Hippolytus. When Hippolytus rejects his stepmother, she accuses him of rape, inciting his father, Theseus, to curse him. Subsequently, Poseidon provokes a chariot accident to kill Hippolytus, at which point Phaedra confesses her role in her stepson’s death. Consequently, in atonement, she commits suicide with “Medea’s poison.”

Britten was long preoccupied with notions of alienation and sexual humiliation, in both comedic and tragic modalities—consider Tytania’s donkey show with Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or, for that matter, Aschenbach’s erotic reduction beneath the image of Tadzio in Death in Venice.

Britten’s attention here is no less perverse, with Phaedra undone by longing for her stepson: understanding her desire as a “defection,” she cannot restrain herself from a demeaning confession. “I love you! Fool, I love you, I adore you!” she spits at Hippolytus, rotten with self-loathing.

Unsurprisingly, what moves this setting beyond an exercise in emotional pornography is the compassion with which Britten examines his subject’s plight. While Phaedra may castigate herself as “inhuman, hateful,” Britten never loses sight of her humanity, locating within Phaedra’s role both perpetrator and victim.

Ultimately, via Britten’s underlying empathy, what surfaces in Phaedra is a labyrinthine psychology, a heroine who speaks to our own unnamed, checked desires.

Graham’s singing was flawlessly produced, brilliant and shimmering, free of defect or wobble. It’s shocking how well preserved her voice is, despite the longevity of her career. She sounds unchanged by age, unlike some of her contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Ms. Fleming). In equal measure, McGegan and OSL were reliable, plumbing the depths of Britten’s music with expert skill.

Imagine now, after such unseemly subject matter, to turn back to the prim formality of Haydn—which, thankfully, was how the concert ended. Indeed, by that point in the evening I welcomed such pleasing, scientific music—if only to cleanse my pallet of Purcell and Britten’s intense tartness.

In fact, I welcomed Haydn, and his Symphony No. 98. Who knew? But I suppose that was one of the more splendid effects produced by OSL’s programming—Bravo! Any orchestra that can get me to relish Haydn deserves high praise, to be sure.

Photo: B Ealovega

  • Camille

    Haydn Hating is somethjng one does when one is still young--read “fifty” into that. After that epochal change in one’s seawater, well, Pappy Hayden gets downright warm and cuddly. Sorta like lithium, if you know what I mean.

    I’m so glad I missed this, though. She has never convinced me of anything ( well, excepting a youtuber I once saw of Didon’s Lament, come to think of it), but maybe in Mozart and I sure don’t want to see MILF rage on stage, please. John Waters did it best.

    What are you doing in the Big Rotten Apple, Patrick Mack? On vacation or have yiu moved here? No need to answer, son donna--e son curiosa.

    • Hippolyte

      Wrong Patrick. Look again, Camille.

      • My fault I fear: I momentarily bylined this piece wrongly.

      • Camille

        Omg——--did it change or is it that I REALLY have to get my eyes checked????

        I wondered what Patty Mack was doing here all of a sudden. Well, too bad, it would have been fun if he had come here. Now where are my glasses, as I see I spelled Haydn as Hayden up above.

    • Camille

      From the originator of absolutely fabulous so-bad-it’s-so-good taste, the Master—

      Yes, dear, I never wear logos, except in one case where it so disceeet no one knows.

      • nachEule

        When oh when will someone engage John Waters to direct a full-blown opera? And which one?

        • Sir Ferris

          From the aforementioned Shock Value: “Sometimes I’ll play my favorite opera and chuckle when I realize I know absolutely nothing about opera and would prefer to keep it that way.” So apparently he’s a fan!

        • Camille

          Well, if *Jed Distler*’s LEGENDARY Pink Flamingos, purportedly to have been performed in 2007--and which he had apparently been writing and working on for many a moon--could be found, well, that would be a nice start!

          If anyone has seen those Flamingos, please do tell.

    • mia apulia

      Somehow Haydn has always been there for me in a most positive way. When I was young I played many of the piano sonatas, finally, (fondly) leaving them behind for the most part. Now I am drawn back to them and am starting to play them again. I am much changed but they are the same. Or are they? Not quite! The fun is still there, but more muted, and the ingenuity is there, but less prominent. But I am fond of them in a more loving way. And of course my fingers are not as young as they used to be…..which of necessity makes things a bit different.

      • Camille

        Is that so, mia apulia? Kudos to you for doing so.

        It is similarly for me with Schubert, whose songs I played through so much as a girl and then packed them away, not to think much about them for years. Then, about seven years ago, my husband gave me a recording of Mitsuko Uchida’s, playing various pieces, including both Schumann and Schubert, and I started to think about him all afresh and fall back in love, this time more deeply, than I had in the beginning. I never cease to marvel at what he managed to crank out, so young, so ill, and so poor, and he serves me as inspiration. It’s been nice to reacquaint myself with a childhood friend again, now so late in the game of life. Funny, now I really can’t bear Schumann anymore and have been mad at him for repeatedly getting Clara pregnant all the time — and then going bonkers and dying on her and the kids — for several years now, and have no more patience for him, at ALL!

        It’s just so interesting how one’s tastes change or evolve over the decades and how, if one friend or, even better, a great artist you may hear impresses something upon you closely enough how that will change your view forever.

    • Camille

      That should read “think UNDER fifty”.
      Or maybe forty would be a more likely threshold.

      I just can’t get connective words in lately. Writing is hard.

    • leftcoastlady

      Hayden Hating is something one does when one is young. Au contraire. I am older than dirt and I still can’t stand him. When the host on my classical radio station announces that the next piece will be Hayden’s whatever, I can’t get to the dial fast enough to turn the volume down to zero. All that prissy ticky-tock; what a bore.

      • manou

        Yes -- but what do you think of Haydn?

      • leftcoastlady

        I meant that other guy; you know, Haydn.

      • Bill

        On the contrary -- Haydn was the composer I loved the most when I was a young lad -- I could identify all his
        later symphonies (having most of them on 78s). And
        now I still love Haydn, the inventiveness, the freshness, the melodies -- well everything actually. if a Haydn piece is coming up on the radio, I always perk up. Haydn was in service most of his life -- it was only in his older age when he traveled to London or composed his later masses and oratorios that he had a larger orchestra at his disposal and perhaps larger venues for performances. I think (given the more rigid framework of music during his time) one of the most imaginative and versatile composers of all time

  • “vicious perversity” What does that even mean?

  • This sort of condescension to Haydn says more about the author than it does about the composer.

    Haydn was playing for bigger stakes in Symphony 98, so let’s look at a few bars from that. Severe unisons outline an ascending Bb minor triad, followed by descending diminished seventh downwards and half-cadence. A standard slow-intro gambit of the sort that the composer has used since the Glückiste so-called “Sturm und Drang” period. But what happens next surprises: the opening gesture is repeated tenderly, piano, with the opening F adjusted to Gb -- the harsh Bb minor is magically transformed into a lovely Gb major, made even more by the suggestion of a dominant ninth chord on Ab (the ninth is the kicker). So by changing little, Haydn takes us from the cold plunge to the warm bath.

    The next phrase repeats the same material in Db major, adding a valiant note, before suddenly approach a half cadence. The slow-intro ends so quickly! We are propelled into the allegro with unexpected dispatch. But there’s more: the slow introduction turns out not to have been empty throat-clearing to quiet the audiences, but a slow, minor-key version of a motive that we hear at the beginning of the allegro. The allegro “completes” the slow introduction, simultaneously giving us a sense of conclusion and beginning.

    But there’s still more: when Haydn arrives at the half-cadence at measure 30, he avoids the customary G.P. or quiet transition to the dominant, he instead holds onto the chord, agitating the rhythm and via a couple chromatic steps plunges headlong into the “new theme”, which turns out that be the old one raised to the dominant!

    There are two techniques that Haydn uses with great mastery in this opening thirty bars. One is motivic manipulation. As any listener of Wagner knows, when you vary the motives, you change the listener’s emotions -- music tells a story, as the motives go from unstable beginnings, pass through a series of contrasting experiences, and move towards resolution. Beethoven learned this from Haydn, and Wagner learned it from Beethoven.

    The second, characteristic of symphonic works by French composers of the 90s as well as the young Beethoven, is the sense of propulsion to moves us from a stretch of music to the next. Haydn grew and changed as a composer, and in late works such as the Symphony #98, we can see in him the beginnings of what people often call Romanticism.

    • Camille

      Gee thanks for the lesson, gratis, m.c.!

      You know, I had a fellow friend pianist who just hated playing Mozart, and kind of first opened my eyes to the fact that Haydn was many times more interesting in some of his music. I never forgot her words of wisdom to me but filed them away for much later.
      Of course, he doesn’t have that Mozart kink which everyone loves, but there is a lot to love in Pappa Haydn, it just isn’t always on the surface.

      And there was good reason it was Haydn they played on the airwaves on September 11, 2001, and right away.

      Hey crochie, are you yet aware of the Lincoln Center Festival for this summer? If not, you should look into it as when I received the flyer I said to myself “This has m. crochet written ALL over it.”

      • lots of interesting things in the schedule, but probably the most exciting for me is that series of noh and kyogen performances. Anybody who could see all five would get a marvelous introduction to the core repertoire.

    • grimoaldo

      Magisterial analysis m.croche, I cannot be that “scientific”, all I can say is that I love Haydn’s music and do not find it “prim” or “polite” or like having to eat your vegetables before you get your ice cream.
      They don’t play Haydn nearly enough at symphony concerts imo, I almost never go to them, they almost always ruin them for me by including symphonic music by composers I find very boring, but I will refrain from diverting the subject into which ones those are.

  • Daniel

    I’m afraid the author’s dismissal of Haydn made me dubious from the outset. Sure enough, throughout the rest of the review, we were provided with lots of attempts to be cute and au courant, but very little insight and a healthy dollop of immaturity.

    Leonard Bernstein adored Haydn, and he was certainly no fusty, prim ascetic. I’m reminded of Isabelle Huppert’s Erika in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” scolding her student Klemmer when he disdains Bruckner. In brief: grow up.

    And “Graham’s singing was flawlessly produced” and “free of defect”? Well, it certainly didn’t start that way. She sounded hollow and hooty in the first Purcell song, but warmed up to produce reliably beautiful sounds, although pitch drooped rather consistently.

    • Daniel

      I should specify that I meant Haneke’s film version of Jelinek’s novel, which I haven’t yet read.

      • Krunoslav

        And Haydn’s string quartets? The greatest of them are remarkable, as are the piano sonatas.

        And DIE SCHOEPFUNG, some of the greatest vocal music of its era? Does that get dismissed as polite and medicinal too?

  • phoenix

    This turned out to be an interesting thread -- with the addition of the Mozart/Haydn tandem, even more interesting. 40 years ago if someone played 30 seconds of any Haydn symphony I recognized it right away -- not so with Mozart. Haydn’s masses I loved even more but it took me a few more bars to name that tune. Mozart’s operas are beyond criticism around here (so I shall say nothing), but Haydn’s operas always put me to sleep -- written in a rather formulatic classical style -- I mean like really I don’t even like Gluck (believe me I tried: have suffered through a few famous performances of his operas). But the musical structure of the composers I do like, Spontini and those after him, much of it I can trace back to Haydn (and hence to Gluck) -- alas, not being a musicologist nor a convincing commenter (like m.croche), I don’t feel obliged to.

    • Bill

      I had posted once before with a question but no one answered. Bruno Walter once said that Irmgard
      Seefried was the only singer he knew who knew the
      difference in singing Haydn and Mozart. The question
      I posed was if there is a difference (in style or
      utilizing legato or anything else) what actually is that
      difference ? Perhaps someone writing in Parterre
      could illuminate for if Bruno Walter felt there was
      a difference in singing Mozart and in singing Haydn
      then probably there IS a difference. Of course since
      Bruno Walter’s time, there have been changes in the
      Mozartian style of singing even from the 1950s --
      I have seen five different Haydn Operas performed
      and some of them do have considerable technical difficulties for a singer to overcome -- we all know the Haydn Masses and Oratorios and he did write songs
      which are sometimes but rarely done. It seems to me that many singers who sing Haydn well (Janowitz, Wunderlich, etc.) also excel in Mozart.

      • Camille


        Here are a few examples of Irmgard singing Haydn. Sehr nett.

        And then here is un pezzo di Mozart--

        SO, maybe someone can distinguish the difference in style between the two for I certainly can not. A very interesting question.


    • phoenix

      Bill, I’m not a singer + I’m not sure what Bruno Walter meant by ‘the difference’ -- but, unlike Camille, I do believe there is a difference, at least for me personally. In listening to recitals on the internet in recent years I’ve noticed a great deal more programming of Haydn’s songs. What I’d like to hear more of are live performances of the Hob.XXVI cantatas with keyboard, which I don’t remember very well.
      -- The 14 Haydn operas, which as you say sometimes do require florid singing, are structured quite different from one another -- but to my ears the vocal writing between one opera and another is more similar than in Mozart’s operas. I feel that Mozart much more personalized his writing to the situation of character as well as the singers at hand. Haydn’s formally structured Armida sounds more like it came from much earlier days of the classical period, yet it is contemporary with Mozart, whose Idomeneo seems to look forward to rather than back.

      • armerjacquino

        I don’t think Haydn’s operas represent his best writing, but there is still some beautiful stuff in them. ‘L’incontro Improvviso’ for example contains a quite extraordinarily lovely trio (with some very forward-looking ‘Disney Mermaid’ harmonies in the coda) and a bravura aria, ‘Or Vicina a Te’ which I’m surprised isn’t a concert staple. Linda Zoghby sings the hell out of it on the Dorati recording.

      • Camille

        phoenix caro, please do not inadvertently misconstrue my intention and meaning here — I am not stating there is ‘no difference’, as there most likely IS one — it is only just that my ear is not capable of discerning said differences as I am not educated in those little particularities, and that’s all.

        If Bruno Walter said there was a difference, I am certain there was one. It’s all the same, as Aldonza the Whore once intoned, to me, and that is all.

        I have a difficult enough time expressing myself in Engrish as it is……

        This all stirs up my endless curiosity and I may go listen to one of his operas, maybe the one that features Nicolaï Gedda — forget the name at the moment.

  • Batty Masetto

    For those who want a bigger dose of Haydn, ALL of the symphonies are available, most in multiple interpretations by the likes of Dorati, Fischer and Hogwood, with scores(!!!!), at this amazing site:

    And for those who haven’t figured him out already, try listening to a few early symphonies with the scores and discover delight.

    • Batty Masetto

      Oh, P.S.: for reviewers in Haydn’s era, “pleasing” and “scientific” were high compliments, if I recall right from reading Burney many many years ago.

      • It hardly need be said that contemporary critical reception went well beyond these two adjectives. A sample from the Morning Herald of March 24, 1792:

        “A new composition from such a man as HAYDN is a great event in the history of Music -- His novelty of last night was a grand Overture [i.e. Symphony] the subject of which was remarkably simple, but extended to vast complication, exquisitely modulated, and striking in effect. Critical applause was fervid and abundant.”

        Extract from HC Robbins monumental biography. Would that our reviewer read fewer program notes and more books.

        • (HC Robbins Landon’s).
          (Volume 3, p. 149 to be exact)

          • redbear

            My first live opera, at a university in San Diego, was The Apothecary (I moved furniture in the production and that was the beginning and end of my opera career). It was an easily engaging and brilliant work. Are all the rest of them really not worthy of our attention? Huh?

            • grimoaldo

              Haydn’s operas were almost all written as entertainment for his fabulously wealthy patrons and their guests at their remote country estate Esterhaza, which had its own little opera house. They are not intended as profound or deeply moving experiences but as pleasant diversions. When Haydn was approached by the opera house in Prague to write an opera for them, he refused and told them they had had Mozart write operas for them and they should stick to him -- “Have Mozart write more operas for you, you are lucky to have him, don’t ask me, his operas are much better than mine” -- that is a paraphrase of what he said.

        • Would that some of our commenters didn’t feel so overwhelming an urge to act like pretentious jerks.

          • Ok, bye.

            • grimoaldo

              Come on m.croche, please don’t stop posting here. I would certainly miss your unique knowledge of all those Chinese operas and so forth.

            • Bill

              I agree -- m. croche keep posting please

            • Batty Masetto

              Absolutely agree. Croche is both learned and (normally) polite even when he strongly disagrees. This is no exception. The discussion of Symphony 98 above is just plain valuable stuff. He has helped broaden my own knowledge enormously in all kinds of ways. We would be greatly impoverished without him.

          • DeepSouthSenior

            Perhaps La Cieca could find a neat techy way to surround “pretentious jerk” posts with a black border (or better yet, flashing red!). Feel free to begin with this one. That way I could know the right way to react to them. I seem to miss a lot, naively thinking that there was just a lively conversation going on.

            Regarding the inestimable Haydn, I’ve told Mrs. DS -- only half-joking mind you -- that if I’m ever laid up in bed with a terminal disease unable to move and awaiting my transition to glory, she should should play Haydn symphonies for me 24/7. I can hardly think of a more delightful way to exit this life.

  • Tamerlano


    • Tamerlano

      Beautiful vocal writing all around.

      • hailui

        Here is Steber singing Mozart by way of comparison:

        I leave technical analysis in the capable hands of m croche and the many others who illuminate parterre. But to me, the complex emotional content of most Mozart is what would require a different approach in singing, as compared to Haydn (whom I, being well over 50, adore).