In 2009, I commissioned a group of piano miniatures in celebration of the Haydn bicentenary. The project fulfilled, in a sense, a personal ambition to honour a composer who had inspired me since my childhood.
My first exposure to Haydn came when I was at school. I remember particularly a talk given by H.C. Robbins Landon – in fact, I still have my signed copy of his BBC Music Guide on the Haydn Symphonies. I studied these works for at A-level, getting to know them in their interpretations by Barry Wordsworth and the Capella Istropolitana (on the new, suitable-to-the-schoolboy-pocket Naxos label). At the same time, my piano teacher asked me to learn the Sonata in A major, Hob. XVI: 26. By playing this enthralling sonata I became familiar with some of the hallmarks of Haydn’s style – his sense of proportion and motivic unity (as in the first movement), his fascination (as in the second) with enigma and pattern, and (as in the third) his gift for brevity and his pithy wit.
Now in my thirties, I decided to construct a tribute programme unlike the ones usually requested by concert promoters, making a set of new Haydn-inspired pieces the main item. With composer anniversaries one can find oneself playing what everyone else is playing, which is not so much of a problem with great repertoire but something seemed lacking for this great composer. I wanted something fresh, something showing not repetition but continuity: Haydn has, after all, been called a ‘father’.
The idea came to me to rerun the project of a hundred years ago, when Jules Écorcheville, editor of the Revue musicale of the Societé Internationale de Musique, asked six composers – on that occasion, Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d’Indy, Hahn and Widor – to write a miniature for the piano based on the letters H-A-Y-D-N (translated into the musical notes B-A-D-D-G). I attempted to avoid the danger that the same remit might produce the same piece six times over by involving composers whose styles were, in my experience, different from each others’. Composer friends Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Michael Zev Gordon, Cecilia McDowall, Colin Riley, Jeremy Thurlow, and Tim Watts all accepted willingly. And I contributed some flexibility to the soundworld by leaving the choice of the ‘spare’ notes in Haydn’s name (the Y and the N) to the composers themselves.
The freedom in the brief produced some surprising results. In Odd Sympathies by Tim Watts (b. 1979) the gaps in Haydn’s name were embraced, with the composer deciding to do without Y and N and making the notion of absent sounds the raison d’être of the music. We hear Haydn’s name, fittingly, as only an echo: three keys are silently depressed and a melody line ‘catches’ the sound as if by accident.
It seems, in Tim’s words, ‘a neat way to encapsulate not only physical resonances, but also the notion of historical resonance, which allows a twenty-first century ear to tune into Haydn’s world and feel a sense of fellowship with this marvellous musician’. The name of this miniature comes from a phrase (‘une espèce de sympathie’, ‘an odd kind of sympathy’) describing the action of clock pendulums: Dutch mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens observed they will always swing in exactly opposite directions when mounted on the same beam. In this way, and also in its shrewd quotations, the piece pays homage to Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 ‘The Clock’ – but with a twist: there is no pendulum here, and instead the melody ‘circles the chord, working centrifugally towards the keyboard’s extremes’.
Finally, as though a stopped grandfather clock has been brought back to life, its ‘long-silenced chime’ slowly reawakened, the chime ‘resolves’ in its echo and Haydn is left with us only in memory.
Further surprises came with the remarkable ways in which the pieces engage with Haydn’s compositional style. Formal concision and motivic economy are watchwords of weave by Colin Riley (b. 1963). The composer states that its material is used in three simple ways – repetition, overlapping, and transposition – weaving the name of Haydn into the tapestry twelve times over.
Echoes arise with the previous piece as we again encounter shifting harmonies, the music also punctuated by bell-like chords. Stasis and motion are held in balance by each other.
The aptly titled Haydn Seek by Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951) seems to fix on Sturm und Drang. Bright chords declare Haydn’s name at the start, with a thrilling al rovescio treatment of the motif.
Cecilia subtitles her piece ‘chiaroscuro’: ‘the duality of “hide and seek” suggests the light and the dark’, she writes, pointing to ‘bright, high textures in dialogue with darker, more obscure passages, punctuated by a forte, rhythmic snap’.
Submerged in Cecilia’s piece is a fragment of Haydn’s Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI: 50. In Stolen Rhythm, Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b. 1980) raises the game, rigorously and relentlessly basing her piece on the third movement of the Sonata in E flat major, Hob. XVI: 45. In doing so, she explores other features so characteristic of Haydn’s style – rhythmic energy. She writes: ‘It seemed to me that it was the rhythmic content of the movement that gave it these properties, so I decided shamelessly to steal the rhythm, hook line and sinker, and simply put my notes to it.’
Like a series of ‘jokes’ told in an unfamiliar dialect, Cheryl’s piece shines with Austrian humour. Sometimes, the rhythm ‘skips’ unexpectedly and an 11/16 bar slips in and trips us over. The clear lines of Haydn’s original are replaced by clusters and harmonic pitfalls until, in the end, a cadence worthy of the eighteenth century draws proceedings to an abrupt, witty close.
I was overjoyed when the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors decided to honour Cheryl with an award for this piece in the Instrumental Solo category of the 2011 British Composer Awards. With no disrespect to her creation, I remarked to Cheryl at the ceremony that it seemed slightly unfair given that she only composed half the piece!
Michael Zev Gordon (b. 1963) pays homage not only to Haydn but also to the original French set of 1909. His Innocente explores Haydn’s ‘lightness of touch, perfectly timed silences, [and] an almost child-like playfulness’, and also brings in some elements from Ravel and Debussy. Michael noticed that the opening notes of the Piano Sonata in G, Hob. XVI: 40 spell part of Haydn’s name. So, his piece (taking for its title the tempo marking of that piece) begins with this melodic fragment, ‘but as if in a kind of dream, coloured by a chord from Debussy’s Hommage, then Ravel’s, then a chord of my own invention, and only finally the clarity of the Haydn harmony and texture itself’.
Michael’s piece includes some striking colouristic effects as he elaborates ‘a tiny wisp’ of a figure over what seems like a forgotten classical dance form.
Jeremy Thurlow (b. 1967) calls his piece Butterfly in reference to a composer of ‘deft and quicksilver’ music. We have in the final piece of the set not only a reflection of Haydn’s wit but also of his ingenuity and lightness of touch – this last quality required in a literal sense from the performer. A ‘flickering, darting’ melody in the right hand alternates with shimmering, humming textures, the whole piece dividing into five harmonic areas that spell out Haydn’s name.
I have gone through ‘my’ set in the order in which I chose to group them – a choice I had to make when the manuscripts came in. The clear personalities of the pieces saw me experimenting with a variety of orders. But in the end I decided to group the pieces somewhat like a Haydn symphony – a slow introduction, a dance in the middle, a dazzling finale to conclude.
I gave the premiere of these pieces in the 2009 Cambridge Festival. But as a final emulation of the original project I was in search of a publisher. The exciting Muso magazine came to my aid here, and with the support of the editor, Claire Jackson, the project was given superb coverage in the December 2009/January 2010 issue. There, with huge thanks to the six composers and to the publisher, I expressed my hope that my ‘Homage to Haydn’ project has broken boundaries and engaged audiences.
This article first appeared in the 2012 Haydn Society of Great Britain Journal