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The Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn
by Richard Wigmore
ISBN: 978-0-571-23412-7
Publication Year: 2009 in paperback format
Number of Pages: 388
Price: £8.99
Faber and Faber Ltd, London, England
Experience Classicsonline


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!

 

Margarida Mota-Bull

 

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

 

 


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