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December 18, 2007

Dissin' Papa Haydn

One of Pillage Idiot's major contributions to the arts is my think piece "This art really sucks (eggs)!" In it I discuss a puzzling phenomenon: that one can say that certain works by the masters really suck (in music or literature, say) but for some reason one doesn't say that paintings by the great visual artists suck.

I thought about this puzzle again tonight. I was driving home from the Metro with the radio on, and they were playing Haydn's Symphony no. 94 ("Surprise"). The nickname "Surprise" apparently stems from an incident in which Haydn's wife unexpectedly returned home one afternoon while Haydn was in the middle of banging some fortissimo chords in the dominant.

You may be familiar with at least the theme of the slow movement of the symphony, which is so well known that even your kid sister, who thinks the Beach Boys are classical music, would recognize it. It goes like this: Ba ba ba ba ba ba baaa, ba ba ba ba ba ba baaa, ba ba ba ba ba ba baaa, ba ba ba ba baaa baaa.

So, anyway, I was listening to this symphony and thinking the same thing I think whenever I hear Haydn, namely, that he's an excellent technician -- he knows how to put chords and phrases together well -- but that his music simply isn't very interesting. I made this observation to Mrs. Attila, who's a Mozart partisan, and she enthusiastically agreed with me. She thinks that his themes hold together, but that they're not "transcendent," like Mozart's. I'm a Beethoven partisan, myself, and while the Great Man studied with Haydn, he was doing cartwheels around his teacher from the very beginning.

To get back to my point about Haydn: There's a variation in the slow movement of the Surprise Symphony in which Haydn makes an interesting and unexpected chord progression, but he doesn't go anywhere with it, and three or four measures later, he's back hammering home the tonic again. (For the benefit of my less sophisticated readers, the "tonic" is the principal chord in a particular key, the so-called "one" chord. It has little, if anything, to do with alcoholic beverages.)

I'm not trying to say that Haydn's music sucks eggs, although some of it comes pretty close. And besides, he wrote so much of it that one can't possibly make generalizations.

What I'd like to ask from my classically inclined readers is this: Are there any really great works of Haydn that distinctly do not suck eggs? I'm willing to listen. Just don't tell me the Surprise Symphony.