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The Boys in the Band

Joseph Haydn was very probably the most likeable of the great classical composers. He must also surely reckon in the top four or five in terms of musical accomplishment (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn ‑ sorry, tut mir leid, no non-Germans). His immensely long artistic career also saw a hugely significant change in the way the creation and production of music was financed. In his poor, early years Haydn had relied for a meagre living on the church (as a chorister), then on various minor aristocrats and finally, and for several decades, on the immensely wealthy landowning Esterházy family, first (in 1761) Prince Paul Anton and then Prince Nikolaus.

On Nikolaus’s death in 1790, his son, Anton, wished to restore the family’s somewhat depleted finances and so Haydn, and his fellow musicians, were “let go”, Haydn on a fairly decent pension, the rank and file musicians ... well there does not seem to be a record of any settlement with them. The virtual termination of his obligations to the Esterházys enabled Haydn to accept the invitation of the impressario Johann Peter Salomon to visit London and write new works which would be performed by large orchestras before paying audiences drawn from the new bourgeoisie. Over two visits (1791-92 and 1794-95) Haydn made himself (and no doubt Salomon) a fortune. The conditions of production of music, over his lifetime, had moved from a feudal to a capitalist phase. A string quartet or a concerto was no longer just something to be paid for by a rich aristocrat as an adornment to his style of life; it had become something everyone (with a small bit of money) wanted to hear and henceforth, and for the first time, the market would have a role in deciding what was great and what was not. For better and worse.

Haydn and the boys in the band were required to perform not just at the Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, southeast of Vienna and within relatively easy reach of the city, but also at the family’s impressive new Eszterháza palace, considerably further away in Fertőd in western Hungary, then certainly, and to a degree now, in the middle of nowhere. Though Haydn was employed as a “music servant”, his patrons had considerable respect for him and a great appreciation of what he produced for them. Prince Nikolaus was an enthusiast for the difficult and now largely unplayed stringed instrument the baryton and Haydn wrote 175 compositions for him on it ‑ so one must suppose he was owed; and he seems at times to have acted not just as musical director of his orchestra but as something like its shop steward.

There is a nice story concerning the composition of Symphony No 45 (“The Farewell”/Abschied). The musicians had been out in Eszterháza for the summer and the stay there had extended a good deal longer than expected. Most of them were Eisenstadt boys or had settled there, had wives, sweethearts or significant others and anyway wanted to get out of this dreadful country hole and back to the town, where things happened. Haydn, it seems, resolved to convey his colleagues’ unhappiness to his patron in musical form in what could be construed as an early form of rolling industrial action. In the final adagio movement of the new symphony performed for him Prince Nikolaus was to observe that each musician would successively stop playing, snuff out the candle on his music stand and leave the stage, so that finally there were just two violinists left, one Haydn, the other the concertmaster, Alois Tomasini. Nikolaus apparently took the hint and the musicians were allowed to return to Eisenstadt.

One is aware of the massive edifice of exploitation of the poor on which the culture of the Esterházy princes, and all other princes, depended. Nevertheless, visiting Fertőd today and seeing, suddenly, ahead of one, the Eszterháza palace, the heart leaps up. This is not Versailles or Schönbrunn – grand of course, but not megalomaniac; rather graceful and beautifully proportioned, like the music of the small, pleasant, obliging and clever man who worked here, sometimes without much liking it, over many decades in the late eighteenth century.
16/9/13