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8.557600-01 - HAYDN: Jahreszeiten (Die) (The Seasons)
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Franz Josef Haydn (1732–1809)
The Seasons

Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau in 1732, the son of a wheelwright. Trained at the choir-school of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, he subsequently spent some years earning a living as best he could from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to profit from association with the old composer Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn’s first significant appointment was probably as early as 1758 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count von Morzin, whose kinsman had once served as patron to Vivaldi. This was followed in 1761 by employment in Eisenstadt as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest men in the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, succeeded after his death in 1762 by Prince Nicolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly and somewhat obstructive Kapellmeister Gregor Werner, who had found much to complain about in the professionalism of his young and resented deputy, Haydn succeeded to his position, to remain in the same employment, nominally at least, for the rest of his life.

On the completion of the magnificent palace at Esterháza in the Hungarian plains under Prince Nicolaus, Haydn assumed command of an increased musical establishment. Here he had responsibility for the musical activities of the palace, which included the provision and direction of instrumental music, opera and music for the theatre, as well as music for the church. For his patron he provided a quantity of chamber music of all kinds, particularly for the Prince’s own peculiar instrument, the baryton, a bowed string instrument with sympathetic strings that could also be plucked.

Prince Nicolaus died in 1790 and Haydn found himself able to accept an invitation to visit London. There he provided music for concert seasons organized by the violinist-impresario Salomon. A second successful visit to London in 1794 and 1795 was followed by a return to duty with the Esterházy family, the new head of which had settled principally at the family property in Eisenstadt, where Haydn had started his career with them. Much of the year, however, was to be spent in Vienna, where Haydn passed his final years, dying in 1809, as the French armies of Napoleon approached the city yet again.

Among other notable results of Haydn’s visits to London were his two great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. In London towards the end of May in 1791 Haydn had attended the great Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey, with its thousand performers. The music of Handel was known, of course, in Vienna, where, particularly with the encouragement of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, arbiter elegantium of the Imperial court, the interest of Mozart had been aroused and performances of oratorios had been arranged. The English tradition of Handel performance, however, was something new, suggesting to Haydn a possible return to a form he had explored sixteen years earlier in Il ritorno di Tobia. The Creation was completed in Vienna in 1798 and first heard there the same year. The German libretto, based on an original English text acquired in London and derived from Milton and from the Bible, was by Baron van Swieten, and it was he who compiled a text for The Seasons, which he based on the then enormously popular and influential work of the Scottish poet James Thomson, drawing on the existing 1745 German translation by Barthold Heinrich Brockes, and including, in Winter, Gottfried August Bürger’s Spinnerlied (Spinning-Song) and a translation by Christian Felix Weisse, Ein Mädchen, das auf Ehre hielt, of a song by the wife of the French playwright, composer and actormanager Charles-Simon Favart. Van Swieten, who had urged Haydn to this work and who offered advice, whether welcome or not, during its composition, made it clear that he did not wish his name to appear in publications or performances of The Seasons, in part in view of the composite nature of the text. Nevertheless, whatever criticisms may be made of the libretto, it shows considerable skill in the necessary compression and arrangement of a text from such a diffuse original.

James Thomson was born in 1700, the third son of a Scottish minister who, in the same year, took over the parish of Southdean in the Scottish border county of Roxburghshire, where he spent his childhood, before, in 1725, leaving to seek his fortune in London. He published the first version of Winter the following year, and the whole poem appeared first in 1730. This was later greatly expanded, reminiscences of his rural childhood augmented by moral reflection and appropriate and often lengthy illustrative digressions. The new complete edition was published in 1744, and further editions appeared over the years. Thomson, however, died in 1748, his death commemorated in an ode by the poet William Collins, and, in 1762, by a monument in Westminster Abbey. In his Lives of the Poets Dr Johnson, in his distinctive lapidary style, offers his own judgement of Thomson, detecting in The Seasons ‘want of method’, but quotes with approval the judgement of Thomson’s friend and patron Lord Lyttleton, that his works contained ‘No line which, dying, he could wish to blot’.

Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons was first performed in Vienna on 24th April 1801 at the house of Prince von Schwarzenberg, with further performances on 27th April and 1st May. The first public performance was given on 29th May in the Redoutensaal, where a number of empty seats and an audience of seven hundred in a hall that could hold many more, suggest the changing taste of the wider Viennese public in a year that brought the publication of Beethoven’s Symphony No.1, dedicated to Baron van Swieten, and his first set of string quartets. Haydn’s style had never remained static, developing gradually during his long career. The Seasons has an element of retrospection, a summary of what has gone before, but also looks to the musical future.

Keith Anderson

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