In 2006, the world celebrated the 250th
birthday of Mozart - a truly beautiful, positive celebration,
as it demonstrated happiness and joy that such a composer has
born and had lived.
This year, 2009, we celebrate the death anniversary
of an equally great composer, Joseph Haydn. He died two hundred
years ago on 31 May 1809. Unlike festivities to commemorate
a birthday, I always find that to celebrate the anniversary
of a death is quite negative if not a little strange or even
macabre. After all, are we not sad that such an artist disappeared?
Why should we celebrate his death? It may have religious roots,
as death is considered a passage to a different but better and
eternal life in most religions. On the other hand it may be
that people simply need an excuse to celebrate somebody’s great
artistic achievements. I welcome the 200th anniversary
of Haydn’s death for the last reason. It is in this context,
I believe, that Faber & Faber is launching Richard Wigmore’s
excellent Guide to Haydn.
The book is part of the series of Faber Pocket
Guides and it follows in the footsteps of The Faber Pocket Guide
to Mozart by Nicholas Kenyon, published in 2005. As the name
of the series indicates, these books contain interesting, detailed
information on their subject, compiled in a compact format,
easy to carry and to consult on the go.
Richard Wigmore is a distinguished musicologist
who has written extensively on Haydn and who writes regularly
for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine and the Daily Telegraph.
He is also a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radio 3. Mr Wigmore’s
admiration for Haydn and his music is patent on every page of
the book; and it is clear from the start that this guide is
not just a guide, it is also a personal tribute to a great composer.
This fact is to my mind what makes the reading of this book
so enjoyable, transforming it in an engaging journey of discovery.
The Pocket Guide to Haydn is structured in an
interesting way; divided in sections that are perhaps not so
common in books of this kind. After a brief but entertaining
foreword, by distinguished cellist and children’s author Steven
Isserlis, it begins with a personal Haydn “Top 20”. Mr Wigmore
lists the twenty Haydn pieces that he could least live without.
In Mr Wigmore’s own words, he chose these works because and
I quote: “they give a complete picture of Haydn’s music personality”.
This is exactly the point why I think it was a great idea to
open the guide in such a manner. In one single and simple page,
the reader is at once presented with Haydn’s greatness and given
a taste of his vast output across a range of genres: oratorios,
masses, piano sonatas, piano trios, string quartets and symphonies.
This lovely page is followed by a short section of “Things people
said about Haydn”, which is both interesting and amusing, containing
comments by some very famous people, as for example W. A. Mozart,
Johannes Brahms and Aldous Huxley to name but a few.
The section that most caught my attention and
that I particularly enjoyed, was “Haydn: The Life” because there
is so little we know about him. Unlike Mozart or even Beethoven,
Haydn’s life was not exciting or particularly interesting. Therefore,
it does not stimulate public imagination in the same way but
it is still fascinating to discover how such a great composer
lived: What he did, how he thought and felt. It is a relatively
short biography (it takes slightly less than a third of the
book), however it is masterly written. The narrative is fluent;
the contents are not exhaustive, yet they are informative, continuously
energised with accounts by people who knew Haydn, extracts of
his letters and notebooks, as well as comments the composer
occasionally made in front of some of his contemporaries. It
grabs the reader and one slowly sees Haydn’s personality emerge
from the pages: an intelligent man, an intellectual musician,
with a good, witty sense of humour, generous, kind, perhaps
also a little dull in the extremely strict routines he observed
but also with opportunistic, sometimes critical comments on
the social scene of his time. It is a wonderfully rich but brief
biography and if for nothing else, the book is worth buying
just to read it.
The largest part of the guide is appropriately
dedicated to Haydn’s music. This is the section where Mr Wigmore’s
knowledge and unquestionable authority on the subject really
comes to light. It is an extensive, detailed analysis on the
composer’s works, covering his vast and rich output. Once again,
it is very well written, in a fluent, rhythmic and informative
style, agreeable to read. However, I felt that on occasions
the articles could be a little exhaustive and contained too
much technical detail. If one is not a student or a scholar
but simply an occasional reader who is interested in music,
one may feel overwhelmed by some specialist terms. I found that
this section worked better if I was listening to the music in
question at the same time. It functioned as a perfect companion
but as a guide for people who may just wish to learn a little,
could prove too much. Nevertheless, it is an excellent section
and forms a solid, extraordinary introduction to any studies
dedicated to Haydn.
To further enrich this guide to Haydn, Mr Wigmore
cleverly added a few other valuable chapters, as for example,
a section on Haydn’s composer contemporaries and another on
his friends, patrons and colleagues. These really aid understanding
of the times in which Haydn lived and composed. A comprehensive
chronology of Haydn’s life completes the brief biography; and
finally, lists of recommended further reading and of recordings
of Haydn’s works on CD are all most welcome to complement the
book’s excellent contents.
I greatly enjoyed reading this Pocket Guide to
Haydn and I strongly recommend it to anybody who is remotely
interested in his life and music. It is a worthy tribute to
the composer in this year of the 200th anniversary
of his death; it informs about his music, helps one understand
the composer as well as the man, and demystifies the prejudices
against Haydn. Most of all and perhaps most importantly, this
compact guide to Haydn is not only an excellent learning tool
but it also makes for entertaining reading. At £8.99 and literally
fitting in one’s pocket, it is very good value and a pleasant
companion to carry around!
Interview with Richard Wigmore
Margarida Mota-Bull has written a novel set
against the background of opera and structured within a musical
frame, entitled "Canto di Tenore" see http://www.ebooksforpleasure.com/canto-di-tenore.html