Homage to Haydn

Matthew Schellhorn talks to Claire Jackson, Editor of Muso magazine about his latest project – a series of six miniatures that take unusual inspiration from the great composer.
From birthdays to death dates, 2009 saw myriad composer anniversaries commemorated; we marked 200 years after Mendelssohn's birth and 350 years post Purcell's arrival. We paid our sombre respects to Handel, 250 years after his passing and noted the 50 years gone by after the death of Martinu. While these are all worthy events, it can be difficult for the discerning artist or programmer to find an appropriate means of showcasing the legacy of the composers' repertoire without resorting to simply trotting out populist classics.

So, when pianist Matthew Schellhorn began planning his recital at the Cambridge Music Festival in November, he vowed to mark the 200 years after Haydn's death with a fitting, creative and contemporary tribute. Schellhorn sought inspiration from a soggetto cavato project undertaken 100 years ago for the Haydn centenary, in which prominent composers of the day – Debussy, Ravel, Dukas, d'Indy, Hahn and Widor – each wrote a piece based on the letters H, A, Y, D, N translated into the musical notes B, A, D, D, G (where B = H in German, and with D and G supplying for otherwise unplayable letters). The pieces were later published in La Revue Musicale, for the Société Internationale de Musique. Schellhorn asked six British composers – Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Michael Zev Gordon, Cecilia McDowall, Colin Riley, Jeremy Thurlow, and Tim Watts – to write new works in a similar vein, this time freeing up the use of the letters, with some extraordinary results.

'A typical centenary would survey pieces by the composer himself,' explains Schellhorn. 'I became aware of the La Revue Musicale project and thought it seemed a neat and fun way of celebrating 200 years of Haydn.'
Watts, a close composer friend of Schellhorn's from their Cambridge University days was a clear choice when it came to commissioning; the other writers were picked due to their broad-ranging techniques and musical personalities. 'I wanted to get a nice spread of styles because it was obvious to me from the original set that each composer is very different,' says Schellhorn. 'I left the brief fairly open to ensure different responses. Originally the five notes were predetermined but I suggested either using these or having a completely different pattern of notes, if the composers could justify them. I was worried that they might all come back with the same piece and feared direct repetition, but they've all dealt with it differently. I did consider putting them all in touch with each other to prevent any crossover, but I decided that might be a bit synthetic.'

There is a strong sense of individuality within the final set; each piece has its own personality, from the pensive, meditative sustained notes of Riley's weave to the structural technique employed in Butterfly by Thurlow. Such clear characterisation might have made the work as a whole disjointed, but Schellhorn has given the order of appearance much consideration: 'The order they appear [in the magazine] is the order I performed them. I decided to start with Tim's piece, which imitates a clock whirring back to life. The set is a bit like a Haydn symphony, really, with a slow introduction and then a minuet in the middle, finishing with a virtuosic finale.'

The music was premiered at the 2009 Cambridge Music Festival in November, as part of a concert that also showcased works by Mendelssohn, marking the composer's aforementioned 200th birthday. While contemporary music often gets a hard rap from musicians and critics alike, Schellhorn is confident the Homage to Haydn project has broken boundaries in a way that audiences can engage with.

'This isn't gimmicky,' he says, firmly. 'Every piece was new at some point. Often we listen to music and accept it, simply because it's famous or by a composer we know. Virtually every great piece came with some controversy; it seems appropriate to celebrate Haydn, who was a groundbreaking composer, with pieces that are entirely new.

This interview first appeared in the 12/2009–01/2010 issue of Muso magazine
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