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  • Haydn and the Politics of the Picturesque
  • Howard Irving (bio)

The Joseph Haydn whose life and works are discussed at length in the European Magazine and London Review for October of 1784 is a very different composer from the Joseph Haydn who emerges from the first true musical periodicals early in the next century, especially the second issue of The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review in 1819.1 The rough outlines of Haydn's life as presented by the anonymous authors of both critical-biographical essays might be somewhat similar, but the details of the young Haydn's development and training are sharply different, as are the conclusions the authors reach about the mature Haydn's primary strengths as a composer. The essays effectively present two very different approaches to how Haydn's music should be understood and valued.

The perception of Haydn in England is important not only because his two famous visits there in 1791–1792 and 1794–1795 mark a vital, highly productive point in the composer's life but also because of the meanings of Haydn's music for British concert audiences. At the end of the eighteenth century Haydn was not merely a beloved and genuinely popular composer but also a musician who is often identified as the spiritual leader of the musical "moderns." The moderns and their supporters are sometimes contrasted with the aristocratic forces promoting so-called "ancient' music. In an environment in which connections between music and ideology are now reasonably well [End Page 213] established in some contexts, the ancient and modern factions and the ideologies they represent are an important part of Haydn's reception. Though studies now occasionally take note of the existence of an ancient-modern polarity in late eighteenth-century British music, the ideological implications of this aesthetic divide, especially as they relate to the moderns, remain a neglected aspect of British cultural history.2

We can judge a little about the value systems of the underlying ideologies from the ways in which Haydn was presented. The earlier composer, crafted to appeal to partisans of ancient music, was a sober, well-trained master of the art of counterpoint, whose fertile imagination was subjected early-on to the discipline of grammatical rules and whose occasional eccentricities as an adult owed more to particular circumstances and to the tastes of his employers than to his natural tendencies as a composer. His later doppelgänger, on the other hand, resembled literary figures like Robert Burns or the minor poet John Clare. This Haydn was an entirely self-taught peasant genius who rose from grinding poverty and neglect to become Europe's most popular composer not through his mastery of musical arcana but by virtue of a natural gift for simple melody and a highly original artistic personality.

The Haydn we now know, or at least think we know, is in some ways a mixture of the two: both a mostly-self-educated peasant genius and a consummate master of the formal procedures of music. Of the Haydns in the two essays, the second one might seem reasonably familiar, though with an unusual stress on his lack of formal training and his family's poverty. The European Magazine's offering, on the other hand, diverges so far from the canonical Haydn that it might well be dismissed as a curiosity. Early Haydn biography is known for its inconsistency for reasons that have been discussed at some length.3 The inaccuracies of the European Magazine's essay could, at first glance, be attributed to a familiar kind of reliance on anecdotal information combined with a willingness to resort to fictionalized episodes as a remedy for Haydn's unusually weak biographical primary sources. On closer examination, however, it appears the European Magazine's author is guilty of something more interesting than bad scholarship; this essay suggests the deliberate distortion and exaggeration of known sources for purposes that are, at least to those familiar with the aesthetic fault lines of late eighteenth-century British music, transparently ideological.

On the whole, in fact, this biography is consistent, allowing for its ideological slant, with a well known contemporary account of Haydn's life in Charles...


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