About this Recording
8.573488 - HAYDN, J.: Opera Overtures (Czech Chamber Philharmonic, Pardubice, Halász)

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Opera Overtures


Along with Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn is perhaps the most famous composer of the Classical era, but not all of his oeuvre is equally well known. Certain works—such as the ‘Surprise’ Symphony or The Creation—have tended to overshadow less familiar pieces, such as his opera overtures.

Born in Rohrau, Austria, on 31st March 1732, Haydn showed musical promise from an early age. Although his parents were enthusiastic about music, neither of them was a professional musician, so when Haydn was nearly six years old they agreed to send him to Hainburg, where he would be apprenticed to Johann Matthias Frankh, a distant relative who was the local schoolteacher. There he learned the violin and harpsichord, among other instruments—including the kettledrum, according to one contemporary biographer—and sang in the choir.

His musical gifts evidently developing quickly, he auditioned for Johann Georg Reutter, director of music at St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, and at the age of eight he left provincial Hainburg for the Austrian capital. He would remain there as a chorister for the next nine years, and although Reutter made sure he had reasonable vocal, violin and keyboard training, the choir school neglected composition and music theory entirely. Haydn later commented, ‘I never had real teachers. I always began with practical things—first singing and playing instruments, then composition.’

Eventually, Haydn’s voice—apparently pure and beautiful when he was young—broke, and Empress Maria Theresia complained that he was ‘crowing like a cock’ on the high notes. He soon found himself out on his ear, fending for himself as a freelance musician. There followed an eight-year period of instability: although Vienna was one of the most dynamic musical centres in the world, Haydn struggled, even busking occasionally to make ends meet. He used this time wisely, however, filling in the gaps Reutter had left in his musical (and especially compositional) training, and by the early 1750s he had greatly developed his skills. Around the same time, he attracted the attention of the legendary poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio, through whom he met yet another famous Italian, the composer Nicola Porpora, who helped him improve still further.

Haydn’s reputation grew steadily, and he occasionally worked at the Viennese court and for various other aristocratic patrons. Meanwhile his compositions were also meeting with success. Finally, in 1757, he obtained full-time employment as a Kapellmeister with Count Morzin. During his tenure at Morzin’s court he got married, then in 1761 he was offered a new job working for the extremely wealthy Esterházy family. It was here that he would remain for the rest of his life, and where he established himself as one of the eighteenth century’s most admired and respected composers. Although he was relatively isolated geographically—the court was primarily based in a palace in rural Hungary—he turned this to his advantage, later noting that it ‘forced [him] to become original’.

From 1790 onwards he began to travel, journeying to London several times to conduct a number of concerts. Already wildly popular there, he became even more so: as Charles Burney wrote, ‘the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.’

Gradually, however, Haydn grew ill, and found himself physically unable to compose. One contemporary reported him saying, ‘I am pursued by musical ideas, to the point of torture. I can’t get rid of them, they are like walls before me.’ He lived long enough to witness Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna, dying on 31st May 1809.

Prince Nikolaus, head of the Esterházy family until his death in 1790, developed a strong interest in opera, building a theatre and forming an opera company. Nearly all of the overtures on this recording are to operas produced for the Esterházy court. The earliest included here is Acide e Galatea (Acis and Galatea), written for the wedding of Prince Nicolaus’s eldest son to Countess Maria Theresia Erdödy in 1763. Eighteenth-century aristocratic weddings were protracted affairs, and Acide e Galatea was performed on the second day of the celebrations, which also included jugglers, acrobats, illuminations and a masked ball. Le pescatrici (The Fisherwomen), was also written for a wedding, that of Maria Countess Lamberg to Alois Count Poggi on 16th September 1770. Based on a libretto by Carlo Goldoni, it is a light-hearted caper full of quarrelling lovers and mistaken identities.

Lo speziale (The Apothecary), first performed at Esterháza in 1768, recounts another classic Goldoni love triangle, featuring a greedy old man and a bevy of disguised Turks. Its shrewd good humour is reflected in the exuberant overture. Haydn’s third and final setting of Goldoni was Il mondo della luna (Life on the Moon), premiered on 3rd August 1777 at Esterháza. An unusual opera, it has a commedia dell’arte plot with a science fiction twist that involves tricking the unfortunate central figure into believing that he’s on the moon.

Marionette operas, though rare today, were a popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century, and Philemon und Baucis (Philemon and Baucis) was one such work. Written for the marionette theatre at Esterháza, an ornate space decorated with shells, fountains, chandeliers and frescos, the work was first performed on 2nd September 1773 during a visit by Empress Maria Theresia. Der Götterrath (The Deliberations of the Gods) is the prologue to Philemon und Baucis; only the majestic overture and one other section has survived. L’infedeltà delusa (Infidelity Outwitted), premiered on 26 July 1773 for the name day of Prince Nicolaus’s sister-in-law, was revived for the Empress’s visit. Its pastoral, three-movement overture reflects the light, gently comic tone of the work as a whole.

L’incontro improvviso (The Unexpected Encounter), first performed on 29th August 1775 at Esterháza for a visit by Archduke Ferdinand, is on a Turkish theme. Such subject matter was fashionable in Austria during this period, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) being perhaps the most famous example.

L’isola disabitata (The Uninhabited Island) and La vera costanza (True Constancy) were both premiered in 1779. The former—about two sisters stranded on a desert island—sets a libretto by Haydn’s former neighbour Metastasio; its overture features a famous Sturm und Drang second movement.

The theatre at Esterháza burned down in late 1779, eventually reopening—after many delays—in 1781 with La fedeltà premiata (Fidelity Rewarded). Also produced in the new theatre was Orlando Paladino (Orlando the Paladin) about the lovelorn knight Orlando, a deft mixture of humour and high drama.

The final two overtures on this disc were written for dark, supernatural operas: Armida (Armida) and L’Anima del Filosofo, ossia Orfeo ed Euridice (The Soul of the Philosopher, or Orpheus and Eurydice). The former, premiered on 26th February 1784, was performed across Europe, while the latter—intended for the King’s Theatre in London in 1791—was never staged. The overture, with its commanding opening and ominous sonorities, runs through the main expressive topics of the opera.

Although Haydn’s operas are little-performed today, many of them were immensely popular during his lifetime, being staged from Paris and Budapest to Pressburg and Vienna. They give free rein to Haydn’s musical gifts and dramatic flair, often encapsulating in miniature the emotional range of the operas themselves.

Caroline Waight

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