Haydn: Worthy of a great reception

Posted on June 9, 2009

Wildly applauded along London streets in his day, Haydn gets his second wind

The cross-network Haydn season starts in earnest this month on Radio 3, marking the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death with orchestral performances live from Paris, Oxford and Vienna. On Radio 4, a couple of teaser Haydn documentaries have tickled your reviewer, especially Hunting Haydn’s Head, (30 May, 10.30am), in which zealous fans stole the maestro’s skull after his death.

Previously, we had followed the 58-year-old composer to London, where he was lured in 1791 with the promise of a stipend of £1,200 (an inordinate sum at the time), only to find himself wildly applauded by fans whenever he walked down the street. So gratified was the humble kapellmeister by the electricity of his reception that he immediately settled in Lisson Grove, where he pressed his limbs against those of a new mistress and doodled in his home-made book of “excitements” – fave recipes, gossip about China, tips on how to keep the milk fresh should one ever be lost for six weeks at sea (he asked a sailor).

“Just imagine how many morning chat shows he would have been on,” mused one of the programme’s contributors. “Just imagine him set in a modern context!” (Oh, must we? It’s so killing. And why stop at a one-to-one with Lorraine Kelly? Let’s go all out and imagine him as a guest critic on Newsnight Review, at a performance of Hedda Gabler, with his fingers in his ears, waiting for the loud bit that confirms the heroine has just croaked.)

The slight implication of the – altogether excellent, really a hoot – documentary was that if the media and public went berserk for Haydn then, it’s a shame nobody really gives two hoots about him now, preferring…Mozart, or the deaf one that bit down on sticks.

An expert on the Behavioural Patterns of 18th-Century Concert Audiences (I can’t tell you how much it relieved me to learn such a person exists) described how, during a performance, fans would lounge about on sofas guzzling chocolate, or possibly sleeping though the Symphony No 6 altogether, and then leaping up and crowding round the players during the rousing bits.

Antonia Quirke in the New Statesman, 4th June 2009. www.newstatesman.com