for those of you who aren’t (yet) listening to stumptown’s 89.9, lemme just say it’s the most kick-ass classical radio station in the country. if you’re already an all-classical fan, have you thrown them a few bones during this spring pledge drive yet? if you haven’t, stop reading this and donate now. i mean it. seriously. okay, we all good? a key ingredient of the station is the awesome on-air talent spinning all those oldies but goodies. case in point: robert mcbride (yes, the intrepid proprietor of club mod). i decided to pick mr. mcbride’s brain, asking for his thoughts about 18th-century powerhouse composer joe “papa” haydn and his symphony no. 39 the oregon symphony will be playing this saturday and monday:
Joseph Haydn wrote at least 104 symphonies, maybe more. Only ten of those are in minor keys, so that makes the one in the Oregon Symphony concerts a bit unusual. I have the pleasure of doing 30-minute preconcert chats with the Maestro one hour before each of his concerts in Portland, and he and I have talked about Haydn symphonies before, because he really enjoys conducting them. He even told me recently that his favorite way to evaluate a conductor, any conductor, is by hearing that person lead a performance of a symphony, any symphony, by Joseph Haydn. When I asked him why, Carlos said that there is a great deal of meaningful and entertaining music in those works, but not very many clues about how to bring those qualities to life. During Haydn’s lifetime (1732-1809) he was usually the conductor when his music was performed, and every musician he worked with was well-versed in the style, or the “performance practice” of the time. So his scores are stingy with specific details like “louder here” or “speeding up to the end.” Since the metronome wasn’t invented until after Haydn left the planet, we don’t know for sure just how fast his “Allegro assai” is supposed to be. In recent years, a number of conductors have started using much faster tempos than was the case ten or twenty years ago. (Personally, I like the faster tempos better and I suspect they’re closer to what Haydn would want, but until we get the WABAC Machine perfected we can’t know for sure.) According to Carlos, a good conductor can make a Haydn symphony come alive in countless ways a less-skilled baton-wielder cannot.
As for the Symphony No. 39, the two outer movements are intense and dramatic, and the two inner movements are much less agitated. He uses additional brass to produce a darker, weightier sound, in keeping with the work’s sometimes ominous tone. So far, nobody has found any explanation by Haydn of what he was up to with this piece, though there are other minor-key symphonies from around 1770 that seem to be trying pretty hard to move the symphony from mere entertainment to something more profound, at least some of the time.
Beethoven, born in 1770, was keenly aware of that development and more than willing to continue the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) intensity of symphonic writing in his own works, especially the Symphony No. 5. I would love to know what Haydn, Beethoven’s erstwhile teacher, would think of that minor-key masterpiece.