A Most Underrated Genius

The famous quartet the Lindsays once said that they started out believing that Haydn quartets existed to fill the gaps between Mozart and Beethoven, but then on getting to know them discovered that they were the works to which they kept returning and found most rewarding of all. This tendency to overlook arguably the most important composer of the classical canon is a curious phenomenon. For it is possible to attribute to Haydn the upbringing of the two most enduring classical forms: the symphony and the string quartet, built around his other great innovation, sonata form. Clearly Haydn was not the first to formulate music in a ternary order, but of the major composers he probably was the first to present a ternary structure as a harmonic journey, progressing to the dominant before returning home to the tonic. Even the traditional four movements of the symphony – allegro sonata, slow movement, minuet and trio and faster finale – can be traced back to this grand composer, the progenitor of so much that today’s listener takes for granted.

Why is Haydn’s centrality to the development of classical music, compared to his broad contemporaries Mozart and Beethoven, so neglected? For while Mozart perfected the symphony and the quartet, and Beethoven introduced to them new and hitherto unimagined possibilities, they both owed to Haydn a debt that is not always acknowledged. One possibility is that, because Haydn lived the longest of that illustrious trio, and had the least troubled personal life, no romantic biography has grown up around his music to inject it with greater contextual interest. Secondly there is a sense in which Haydn is seen as lacking the seriousness and dignity of those other giants of the classical era. However this is surely unfair; certainly Haydn wrote music of great warmth and humour, but it would be unjust were his whole output to be stereotyped by the unexpected fortissimo chord in the Surprise Symphony, or the gradual exodus of the orchestra in the Farewell Symphony. For Haydn was equally capable of music of great depth and sensitivity, as evinced by his Opus 20 No. 5 quartet in F Minor, which sits perfectly in its saturnine key. Its dark and mysterious first movement imposes a mood which continues throughout the minuet; this mood relents in the slow third movement, defined by its dreamy first violin descant, but returns with renewed purpose in the fugal finale, which resolves the questions the first movement asks, but not with the answers we necessarily want to hear.

There can be little doubt that Haydn deserves to be considered as an equal to Mozart and Beethoven, in terms of both the quality of his work and the value of his creativity to Western music. In our forthcoming concerts, which we intend to publicise soon on our website, we intend to finish our programme with Haydn’s Opus 20 No.5 quartet, after both Mozart and Beethoven have been played. One hopes that the Lindsays, as well as Haydn himself, would approve.