Haydn and Mahler

Returning from my travels I thought it was a good plan to make the most of the many opportunities Cardiff presents for listening to live music by going to last night’s concert at St David’s Hall. In there’s a considerable flurry of activity in the music scene over the next few weeks so if I can find the time during the flurry of work that will happen simultaneously then I’ll probably be doing quite a lot of concert-going (and blogging). I’m particularly looking forward to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival which offers a much more daring selection of music than the rather conservative fare on offer at St David’s.

Anyway, last night’s concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales began with Symphony No. 104 (“London”) by Joseph Haydn, the last symphony he ever wrote. It’s very typically Haydn, beautifully crafted in a straightforward, middle-of-the-road kind of way. Under the direction of conductor Thierry Fischer the Orchestra gave a polished performance of what is a familiar favourite. Like the other Haydn symphonies I’ve heard (which isn’t all that many actually), I found it quite enjoyable but rather unadventurous. For all that I admire the way it fits together so beautifully, his music is a bit too “safe” for my liking. I found it all a bit trite, I’m afraid.

The audience was rather sparse for the Haydn, but after the interval it filled up with a lot of young people, presumably music students. A number of them had A4 pads at the ready, which made me conjecture that Mahler might be on the examination syllabus this year. In fact when I booked a ticket, most of the stalls area showed up as taken. As usual, however, most of the capacity was given to BBC employees rather than sold to the public. When I went to collect my ticket before the performance, there was a problem printing it out so I had to get someone to write one out by hand. When she started she asked “Are you with the BBC, or did you actually pay?” Often the recipients of this largesse don’t bother to turn up, which makes for flat atmosphere during the performance. It can’t be fun for the performers to see swathes of empty seats in front of them.

Anyway, as I said, after the interval the hall was much fuller, as was the stage as Symphony No. 4 by Gustav Mahler requires a much larger orchestra than the Haydn piece, although not as large as some of Mahler’s other works. Symphony No. 4 is one of the most accessible of Mahler’s works, which is not to say that it’s particularly simple from a compositional point of view; its shifting tonality contrasts markedly with the static feel of the Haydn work we heard earlier. There’s also much less angst in this Symphony than you get with other Mahler symphonies. Although it has its tempestuous passages, the prevailing atmosphere is one of an almost childlike tenderness and there are moments of radiant beauty. Often in Mahler the light merely serves to make the shadows darker, but not in this piece. It’s wonderful.

I particularly enjoyed the restful 3rd movement, starting with cellos and plucked basses and gradually expanding to incorporate the entire orchestra, it slowly swings between sadness and consolation.The last movement, based on an extended setting of the Song Das himmlische Leben from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, depicting a child’s version of Paradise, beautifully sung last night by soprano Lisa Milne. It’s a far more satisfactory conclusion than most romantic symphonies from a structural point of view, as well as being a wonderful thing to listen to in itself.

Although both symphonies consist of four movements, the Mahler (58 mins) is almost exactly twice as long as the Haydn (29 mins). But that’s not the point. There’s just so much more going on in the Mahler, both inside the music and in its emotional impact. Haydn entertained me, but Mahler moves me. I could summarize the difference by suggesting that Haydn was a craftsman and Mahler was an artist.


16 Responses to “Haydn and Mahler”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Last night’s concert by the B.B.C. National Orchestra of Wales at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, was broadcast live on Radio 3 in Britain, but I missed the broadcast because I was at a concert in London by the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra.

    I understand that the original programme for the Cardiff concert was to perform Robert Schumann’s Requiem for Mignon and a brand new piece by Simon Holt called The Yellow Wallpaper with the soprano Lisa Milne and the B.B.C. National Chorus of Wales, alongside Mahler’s 4th Symphony. However, this had to be changed because the soloist was not able to fulfil the great demands of performing all the pieces for medical reasons. The B.B.C. National Orchestra of Wales had recently performed Haydn’s Symphony No. 104, the London Symphony, in a tour across Wales (conducted then by Jac van Steen), so this piece was brought in as a replacement for the Holt première and the Schumann.

    However, Haydn’s wonderful last symphony is always for me a real treat.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, that’s right. In fact the programme contains descriptions of the Holt work; there was a hastily printed insert for the Haydn symphony which I still think is a nice piece, but nothing more.

  2. Roger Butler Says:

    Haydn safe !!!? Uadventurous!!!!? The London symphonies prove that he was wickedly inventive and daring right to the end of his career. Lots of the effects in 104 had never been attempted or heard before.


  3. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: I can’t disagree with you in preferring Mahler 4 to Haydn 104, but it’s dangerous to generalise based on that. I once thought of Haydn as lacking in emotional punch (using the fairer comparison of Mozart, rather than an era as different as Mahler’s), but my mind was changed by the so-called sturm und drang symphonies (roughly nos 25-65), which show a completely different character from the contented (albeit still inventive) old man of no. 104. There is a fantastic set of just these symponies by Trevor Pinnock, which I urge you to sample: edge-of-the-seat stuff.

    As for the Cardiff Mahler, I listened to this online. It’s a piece I love deeply, but performances are almost always spoiled by the soprano in the finale over-interpreting things: too much vibrato, too much knowing over-emphasis of the text. It’s a child’s view of heaven, and needs to have a simplicity and innocence that completely eludes most interpretations I’ve heard (which is a lot). Bernstein did the piece with a choirboy in an effort to get the right character. I was therefore very pleased to hear one of the few times where soloist basically gets it right – you were lucky to witness such tasteful singing.

    • telescoper Says:

      I didn’t realise the performance was being broadcast; the microphones etc were very unobtrusive and there was no announcement at the start. One thing you wouldn’t have got via the net is that Lisa Milne actually looked the part too. Not only did she sing it with appropriate sensitivity, she also had the right facial expressions; child-like, joyous and completely without histrionics.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I really like Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It’s amongst the most attractive of all the Mahler symphonies for me personally, possibly because it lacks much of the angst and the abrupt changes in direction that are present in most of Mahler’s symphonies. It’s a lovely and tender piece of music.

    I have my own opinions of Haydn’s symphonies. I have very great respect for them, but can understand how some people have found them rather dull. I believe that the problem is that there has been a tradition of rather safe, staid, polite performances for several decades that has concealed the true character of the symphonies, particularly of the later ones.

    Haydn’s symphonies follow the conventions of the classical period within classical music. However, they are also full of humour, jokes and joie de vivre. They push against conventions. They are often irreverent. The Farewell Symphony (No. 45) combined the expected forms of a symphony of the era with a plea for better working conditions for the musicians, through having the players walking off stage. Of the London Symphonies, Number 93 contains sudden bassoon flatulence (it is just obvious). The Surprise Symphony (No. 94) follows a polite, predictable course only to break the placid atmosphere with sudden loud chords, intended to startle the audience. The London Symphonies were very popular when first performed. Surely the problem is that performances have tended to be too polite, too safe for many years?

    Of all the symphonies, the last, Number 104, seems a culmination of all that has gone before, the great climax for me of the whole of the classical era within classical music. The odd thing is that so many performances that I hear seem not to match what I think in my head it should sound like.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    And one other thing about Haydn: he looked through William Herschel’s Forty-foot Telescope.

    • I heard some music by Herschel once, but at the 2000 IAU General Assembly in Manchester, so there was an astronomical connection. Although a bit late for my taste (for me, things start going downhill after about 1760 and don’t pick up again until about 1960), is his music really that bad that no-one wants to listen to it? Or could this be a situation like that of JSB (well, maybe not quite on that scale) where he was almost forgotten for a time before being revived?

      Since even Helmut Schmidt (not a bad pianist before he became almost deaf) made a Deutsche Gramophon recording, maybe JAP can bring about a revival of Herschel’s music.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I’ve heard a little music by Herschel and have a CD of his organ music. It’s respectable enough, though not particularly exciting for me. However, Herschel’s music is the wrong period for me too: my enthusiasms in music mostly start around 1800.

      A small number of commercial CDs of Herschel music are available. I should get around to buying one or two more out of interest.

      I didn’t know that Helmut Schmidt was a musician or that he made a commercial recording: that came as a surprise. I do own the exact British equivalent: a CD of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Edward Heath, prime minister of the United Kingdom between 1970 and 1974. 🙂

      • http://www.amazon.com/J-S-Bach-Konzerte-Fur-Klaviere/dp/B000001G6T/


        Music was “just” a hobby for him, like chess, though he was better than most at both. He studied economics and political science and basically spent his whole life working for the civil service or as a politician. After he was chancellor, he was a regular MP for a few years before becoming co-publisher of Die Zeit, a weekly national newspaper. He has also written many books on political topics (he actually writes them with pen and paper in longhand). Now 93, he marrried his wife 70 years ago in 1942, having known each other since primary school; she died a couple of years ago.

        He still lives in a terraced house in Hamburg in a rather working-class part of town where he has lived for many decades. When Brezhnev visited him there, Brezhnev commented on the fact that also in Germany there were special quarters of the city where important politicians lived. Schmidt thought Brezhnev was pulling his leg and asked him how he came to that conclusion. Brezhnev replied that it was easy: all the houses in the street had cars parked in front of them. 🙂 Schmidt and his staff then pointed out that the neighbours were just normal people and that this was just a normal neighbourhood, to which Brezhnev replied that that couldn’t be possible either otherwise there would have to be a high fence around the house. 🙂

        His daughter Susanne lives in Kent and has lived in England for a long time. For a couple of decades she worked for Bloomberg TV; you might have seen her.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        It’s really odd for me to see Helmut Schmidt’s picture on those CD covers. I really had no idea that he was a serious pianist. Good for him.

      • I don’t know where he learned to play. He certainly didn’t study at a conservatory or anything like that. He was, of course, primarily a politician who did music as a hobby and only rarely publicly.

        Somewhat the opposite case was Paderewski who was primarily a musician but spent a bit of time in politics.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        It looks like Schmidt is now dangerously close to shuffling off this mortal call. He has even stopped smoking. He’ll be 97 at the end of December, if he lives that long, which now looks doubtful.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        call —> coil

        Schmidt died yesterday at home, a few months before his 97th birthday.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes. There is something very sad about a death, although perhaps a little less so at the age of 96 years. I had a lot of respect for him as a statesman.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I recall being irritated back in the 1990s when I found that a good number of the tickets for a concert at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff, had been given out free by the BBC, whereas I had paid for mine. Practices like that do not build up an enthusiastic concert-attending community.

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