Papa’s got a brand new bag

I think I’m falling in love….

Strangely, the object of my affection is a dead Austrian who is one of the most misunderstood figures in music history. Boring, stuffy, old fashioned, a relic from music history class, dry, academic, fussy and even quaint- he’s been called all of these, but to me, he is one beautiful music writin’ man.

You know I’m talking about Haydn.

I’ve written about Haydn before, but the thrill of getting to work on yet another symphony, this time number 92, has once again got me thinking that he is the man for our times.

Literally every time I’ve gotten to know a work of his well enough to see some of the genius in it (we mortals never get wise enough to see all the genius in even one work of Haydn), there is a part of me that can’t help but think “this is it. This is his masterpiece. Nobody could equal this, even him.” But then you pull out any other of the 104 symphonies or the 83 string quartets or the 13 masses or the 126 baryton trios, and they’re all miracles. Everyone tells me the operas are his great failure, but I can’t believe it anymore. I’m almost scared to look at them…

First, let me be clear- Haydn is, without doubt, the coolest of all the classical composers. Let’s be clear- cool does not mean trendy, cool speaks to someone who is able to make the impossible look effortless, the terrifyingly dangerous look matter of fact. Cool is the assassin so smooth you don’t feel the knife going in and you thank him for his time when he’s done. Cool is the man who does it his way, no matter what anyone else thinks, knowing full well we’ll be copying him next year.

Go… listen to Symphony no. 92 (Oxford). If you don’t know it, you might find it refreshing, playful, exciting. Maybe you’ll find it a little low key after that Schnitke disc you were listening to earlier.

Go ahead, put some Brahms or that Xenakis or that same Schnitke back on. Notice anything. Maybe you’re a new music guy? Take four hours and pull out all your Boulez and Ferneyhough. Overdose on Messiaen. Indulge in Webern.

Now play the Haydn again- notice the angular lines? The sudden, crazy shifts of mood and harmony? Hear the jokes.?

Leave it alone for a day, then grab a score. Your library will have all the Haydn symphonies- they’re the ones nobody checks out and nobody opens…..

It’s so simple, even your rusty score reading is fine- look, it’s a G major symphony and he starts out with a nice G major triad in closed, root position. No doublings- three notes, three sections, just root, third, fifth. Good old Papa Haydn. Three-four time, three times the G major chord. No inflection, no motion, no way of even telling what the meter is.

“I prefer Pops to Papa,” the man says.  “Sounds cooler.” Bars 2-4, five voices instead of three. Completely contrapuntal instead of homophonic. Unusual touches- a two bar swell up and down in the first violins- not typical Haydn…..

“There is no typical Haydn,” says Pops, “part of my genius is making you believe in the nice, fatherly classical Papa H who never existed. I’m the Easter Bunny and the Grim Reaper all in one. I make you think you live in a safe, sane world, then play with you, purely for my own pleasure, and you thank me for the ride at the end, knowing full well you can never go back to your mundane rituals again…”

Five voices and we don’t know who’s got the main line. Is it the firsts with their swell, the seconds with their descending line in the rhythm of dotted quarter and three eighth notes, the violas with their luscious octave leap and scale up (more or less the inversion of the 2nds), or the cellos with their majestic arpeggio?

Suddenly, there’s a half cadence and we’ve had a nice, square four bar phrase. ”This guy’s not so bad, I can take him,” you think.

Pops just smiles.

Second phrase. Same four bar construction in the dominant, but starting with the 7th on top, not that there’s anything wrong with that. See, it’s just like music history class- good old question and answer rhetoric. Eight bars. Nice and square…

Now something new- something very new. We’ve had perfectly homophonic writing and totally contrapuntal writing, now he gives the melody, not really even a melody- just an elegant turn, to the first violins while the rest of the string secion accompanies homophonically. That’s texture number three, and it lasts only two bars.Bar 11- what’s this? So far we’ve had all three accidentals in the piece, in this bar nearly every note is chromatic. We’ve moved from simple G major triads into something slippery, bizarre….. And it only lasts one bar…

Bar 12- the knife is already in and you can’t feel it. Suddenly everyone drops out but the seconds. That’s texture number four- a single note played by a single section. It’s D, the dominant, and the first note of the first bar of the piece (do you think that’s on purpose? Pops is inscrutable. He’s not saying anything, yet)

You’re sweating and Pops is just smiling at you. You start grabbing at straws- “I know, it’s the dominant! It’s the dominant! You’ve got to land there to set up the beginning of the exposition in the tonic. See, I was paying attention in analysis class. We’re nearly ready for the exposition”

The cold steel of the assassin’s blade tickles the wall of your heart. Bar 13 and the 2nds land on the downbeat still on the D and the cellos enter below on E flat- it’s the most shocking event in the symphony. That’s texture number 5, and they’re lasting less than a bar each time. An eighth note later the firsts are in on G, which would sound comforting but for the outrageous dissonance below them. They’re playing the same rhythm as the seconds the bar before….”My god,” you gasp, “it’s a point of imitation.” Even as you recognize this, you see the 2nds falling slowing away from the D in half steps..”Oh Christ,” you say, “Oh my sweet lord… it’s the first violin melody from bar 11 in augmentation.” How much can he do in one bar? Beethoven never made me feel this way.

Bar 14, and you’re looking at  big H- he’s strangely beautiful, standing their so serene and still, smoking his cigar.

Haydn, Josef Haydn  

You have no idea what’s coming. The cellos and basses fall off from their E-flat to D, good old, safe D, then on the second eight of the bar we hear what is surely yet another point of imitation of the second violin repeated pitches in the violas, but something’s wrong. There’s something new here. Woodwinds! He’s held them back all this time, yet there they are, and what are they playing? E-flat in the flutes against the cello D. E-flat? E-flat?

“I never knew,” you plead, “I never understood the truth.”

Bar 15 and in come the horns, the bassoons- there is a subito forte in the middle of the bar, the first loud music in the piece, then, just a few beats later, a diminished chord and silence. You wait.

Piano again. First violins stroke a plaintive falling tritone, while beneath them cellos and basses are glowering on their e-flat, e-flat, e-flat. A descending chromatic scale- you’re spent now, you can’t imagine what’s coming next, but you see the double bar ahead. One last falling diminished seventh, from b-flat to c-sharp. Everything is spiky, arid and static. It’s like a savage, arctic landscape.

“Jesus,” you say, aware you can no longer feel your legs, “how the f*ck is he getting to G major from this?”

Silence. A fermata. We wait.

Double bar- Allegro spiritoso, and here we are in G major, wait, what’s that? He’s starting on a V7 chord!

Pops is laughing at you now- it’s not an innocent laugh.

The first violins fall down the scale from the 7th, dotted quarter and three eighth notes. The second violin material from bar 2.

There’s more, but you can’t take it now. Go on, get your Mahler records out, listen to your Strauss. Maybe Gotterdammerung will calm your nerves. Pops can wait. Never in a hurry, but always right on time. When you get your breath back, there’s more. Much more.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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3 comments on “Papa’s got a brand new bag”

  1. Rebecca

    Kudos! And, I totally agree. 🙂 I will be singing with the chorus of the classical music festival in eisenstadt this summer: die schöpfung and harmoniemesse. I’m counting the days.

    And…wait for it…shameless plug:

  2. Zoltan

    Great writing there Kenneth! It almost got me to listen to the work!
    But then I rather listened to Rachmaninoff…

    Ah, blame my youth!

  3. Pingback: Kenneth Woods- a view from the podium » Back to Oxford

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