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Richard Wigmore

Interview by Margarida Mota-Bull

As stated on Faber and Faber’s website, Richard Wigmore is a distinguished musicologist, who specialised in the Viennese Classical period and Lieder. He has written many CD notes, concert programme notes, newspaper and magazine articles on Haydn. He writes regularly for Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine and the Daily Telegraph and is a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radio 3. His previous publications include Schubert: The Complete Song Texts. To coincide with the 200th anniversary of Joseph Haydn’s death, Faber is launching The Pocket Guide to Haydn, written by Richard Wigmore review . It is in relation to this that I interviewed Mr Wigmore.


MMB: Apart from the obvious fact that it is the 200th anniversary of Joseph Haydn’s death, why write this guide about Haydn?

RW: This is part of a series of Faber Pocket Guides on various subjects and was partially motivated by Nicholas Kenyon’s Pocket Guide to Mozart, which I reviewed for Gramophone. I felt that I could do something similar but simultaneously a little different. A lot has been written on Mozart but not on Haydn so I felt that this book would fill a gap in the market. I have written extensively about Haydn so my idea was to compile a good deal of information and personal observations into a very compact format.

MMB: Your book – The Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn – is, as the name indicates of course, more a guide rather than a biography.

RW: Yes, you see, with Haydn, contrary to Mozart, if one is not interested in his music then one does not care to find out about his life. Haydn’s life was longer but far less interesting than Mozart’s. This is why Haydn’s music is the most important section of the book. I decided to dedicate approximately two thirds of it to his music and slightly less than one third to his life.

MMB: Did you have to follow a template or guidelines stipulated by the publisher? If no, why did you structure the book in this manner?

RW: No, there wasn’t a template as such. I partly followed the structure laid out in Nicholas Kenyon’s pocket guide to Mozart, however I made my own emphasis. For example, such features as “Haydn on CD” and “A chronology of Haydn’s life” were my own idea.

MMB: Right at the start of the book, you present the reader with a so-called “Haydn Top 20” or his 20 works that you could least live without. What makes these works so special for you? And why do you think they rate above the others?

RW: This is of course a very personal choice and I actually changed my mind a few times. In general, these are the works that move me; the most exciting works that give me musical enrichment. This is of course an artificial selection and these are arguably Haydn’s greatest works. I could have easily added another twenty but I think that the ones I listed represent his range over a wide variety of musical genres. I believe they give a complete picture of Haydn’s music personality.

MMB: Still in connection with your top 20, your list contains a few of Haydn’s religious works like The Creation, The Seven Last Words and a couple of masses. How do you think Haydn’s religious faith influenced his work?

RW: Well, with Haydn, as with Bach, is difficult to say: Did he write great religious music because he was a religious man or because he was a great composer? Haydn was a catholic and definitely much more religious than Mozart or Beethoven. The Creation was an act of devotion. Haydn believed in God and that his genius was divinely inspired. He prayed to God everyday to help him complete The Creation. God and religion were important to Haydn but in a different way than to Bach. Typical of the Enlightenment, Haydn’s religious themes are more joyful and cheerful rather than centring on human weakness, suffering, sin and punishment. Haydn’s religious music is more a celebration of how wonderful it is that we live in a beautiful world created by God. So God is important to Haydn and is his inspiration but it is difficult to say if The Creation would have been different should Haydn be a man of less faith. I believe he would still create great music because he was a great composer. On a purely speculative basis, one could say that perhaps Haydn would not have written the two great oratorios: The Creation and The Seasons, however he would still have written the masses whether he was religious or not because these were part of his job.

MMB: You wrote about symphony no. 45, Farewell, which is a piece I particularly like. It’s a great symphony and the reason why Haydn wrote it shows a man who had good sense of humour but who was also subtle and witty. Would you agree? And do you think that these qualities are demonstrated in some of Haydn’s works?

RW: Oh! Definitely! Haydn is one of the wittiest of all composers. We can find a lot of humour in his music. For example, his use of rhythm: he adds pauses and silences that are totally unexpected. These sudden stops of the music can be mysterious, dramatic, comic and witty at the same time. Another symphony comes to mind, the Surprise, number 94, with its “crash” effect in the middle of a very soft passage. The Farewell symphony is witty in the last movement when the musicians stand up, blow out their candles and walk away but the first three movements are very troubled yet rather original. You see, Haydn liked to tease his listeners and produce things that the listener was not expecting. That is all part of his witty humour.

MMB: As I am also a foreigner living in England, I found of particular interest Haydn’s impressions about England and the English, which you mention on page 55. Haydn’s notes are highly amusing. Most of all I found incredible that some of the things he mentioned are still visible characteristics of the English, which are possibly more obvious to somebody like me. As an Englishman what do you think of Haydn’s remarks and do you think they are still true in the present times?

RW: Yes, Haydn’s remarks are very amusing and the features of London life are the same in 1795 and in 2009, both when he talks about the drinking – Haydn was quite shocked – and about the weather. His comments on the fog and the oddities of the legal system are also very amusing. Haydn was a very sharp observer of the London scene and had a very good eye for social detail. He captured it all in his notebooks, which he kept during his visits to London.

MMB: Of Haydn’s symphonies, the 104 London is my favourite. It is also on your top 20. What, in your opinion, makes this symphony so good?

RW: The London, Haydn’s symphony number 104, was the last of the twelve symphonies that he had been contracted to compose for London. It turned out that it was also his last, though at the time he didn’t know it of course, but it was the last of the twelve so he was determined to create something very grand and this he did. The London is a full portrait of Haydn’s music. It has grandeur, lyricism, real drama, especially in the first two movements and one can say that it anticipates Beethoven. If one of Haydn’s symphonies has everything then this is the number 104. It shows Haydn at its most mature as a composer.

MMB: On pages 284-289 you describe Haydn’s best known and arguably greatest work The Creation. What do you think of Haydn’s depiction of chaos in this work?

RW: Yes, you can say it is arguably his greatest work. Most people would say it is; personally, I would put The Seasons slightly higher. But, yes, The Creation is the most visionary, most forward looking piece of music in the 18th century. The depiction of chaos, in the beginning of the piece is almost impressionistic in style and the orchestral colours are amazing; not just in the beginning but throughout the entire work. It has fantastic individual instrument writing: For example, there is some wonderful writing for the clarinet, for the bassoon and for all the woodwinds. It is in a sense a strange piece, a bit of a paradox because it is written in the classical sonata form but the harmonies and the colours are unlike anything written in the 18th century. In fact, if one listens to The Creation for the first time, without knowing it is by Haydn, one may think it was written by a composer in the 1820s or 1830s. Some parts even sound like Wagner! So it is a piece where Haydn demonstrates clearly that he was totally ahead of his time.

MMB: Haydn’s operas: I like Haydn’s Armida and particularly L’anima del filosofo. In dramatic and narrative terms I do not think they can equal Mozart’s later operas but I think that there are some great moments in both pieces. What is your personal opinion of the two? Are there any recordings you would recommend?

RW: Yes, I would agree that Haydn’s operas cannot equal Mozart’s later ones in dramatic terms but yes, it is also true that there are some great moments in Haydn’s. Armida first, has some powerful arias in Act III, in the magic forest, and the sextet at the very end of the opera is fantastic. These sections in particular have some lovely orchestral colours but the problem with Armida is that it moves too slowly. The first two acts really only have one dramatic element, one situation that stretches over nearly two hours. I can imagine what a nightmare it must be for any director or producer to try and stage this opera. It is similar with L’anima del filosofo but in this particular case, the libretto is also very bad. Haydn, unlike Mozart, never rejected a bad libretto; he seemed to simply accept what was presented to him with little critical sense. With regards to L’anima del filosofo, one might say that the opera was not completely finished. As you know, due to politics, it was never performed in Haydn’s lifetime; its first ever performance only took place in 1951. I believe that Haydn would have revised the work, as some things in the opera don’t work very well: For example, the second death of Euridice, dealt with in bare recitative, is very anticlimactic. So I think that Haydn would have revised and improved the work if he had had the opportunity. There are good recordings of both operas and I mention them in the section “Haydn on CD” – actually, the operas are possibly better appreciated on CD, as the slow pace doesn’t matter as much as on stage – Armida recorded by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and L’anima del filosofo by Christopher Hogwood; both feature Cecilia Bartoli.

Now, Margarida, I am sorry but unfortunately, I don’t have much time left, so I can only answer one more question. Is that all right?

MMB: Of course, Mr Wigmore. I still have various questions but I will choose one that is particularly important to me.

RW: Yes, that is very good. Thank you.

MMB: You often state in the book that Haydn’s influence on the music of Mozart is seen throughout but that this is seldom reciprocal. In what way do you think Haydn influenced Mozart? And, in your opinion, what are the similarities and differences between the 2 composers?

RW: Oh! That’s a very long question; it’s a very good question! Well... Haydn was twenty-four years older than Mozart so it would be natural for the younger man to look up to the older but Mozart didn’t value other composers much, however he truly valued Haydn and admired him above all other living composers. As you know, the two men were friends even if for a relatively brief time from 1783 onwards and their meetings were most frequent during 1789-90, then Haydn left for London and of course Mozart died while he was there. Haydn really influenced Mozart in chamber music, particularly in the string quartets. Haydn developed the string quartet admirably; in fact, he was the father of the string quartet. He composed his string quartets in a conversational style of writing and Mozart learned so much from them – he called Haydn his musical father and, as you know, he dedicated his set of six string quartets, published in 1785, to Haydn – but of course Mozart being Mozart even though he learned from Haydn, when he composed his string quartets, he made them very much his own. In Mozart, you get more chromaticism and it has the effect of pathos, melancholy, sadness even; in Haydn there is also chromaticism – in The Creation for example – but it’s different, more optimistic than Mozart’s. Also Haydn was more of an orchestral composer. Mozart’s inspiration is more operatically based. He creates more lyrical, operatic melodies and that is the reason why Mozart has a more instant appeal: he makes more tunes, he wrote more melodically. Haydn was more interested in ways of structuring the music, in its format so that I would say he had a bigger sense of adventure.

MMB: Well, Mr Wigmore, as we must finish, I just want to thank you very much for your time.

RW: Thank you for interviewing me and please send me an e-mail when the interview is published so that I can read it.

MMB: Certainly. And may I just add that it was really interesting talking to you.

RW: Thank you.

Margarida Mota-Bull interviewed Richard Wigmore on 9th Feb 2009.

The Faber Pocket Guide to Haydn by 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


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