Category Archives: Musical reflections

With April fool’s jokes canceled this year because of Covid-19, I wrote about how Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony would still be a tasteful laugh

Last Wednesday was April 1, aka, April fools day, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, most people canceled the chaos and mayhem that usually happened on that day in other years, but I thought I’d remind some of us who already knew, and introduced others who didn’t yet, to one of the best practical jokes ever; The “surprise” symphony by Franz Joseph Haydn.

F. J. Haydn grew-up in Vienna in a very musical family. His younger brother, Michael, also became a composer in his own right.

As a child, Franz was a Vienna choir boy, and then as a young man, he worked hard at learning how to compose. Later, he then , worked for the Esterházy family living with them on their remote estate. This job lasted several decades, and being quite removed from any large city Haydn said he was “forced to be original”. While there he mastered his craft, and also became internationally revered as a composer. He was best of friends with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart saying, “Mozart is the best composer I know”.

However, from between when Mozart died in 1791 until Ludwig Van Beethoven fully emerged as a composer in 1804 with his third symphony called the “Sinfonia Eroica”, F. Haydn was probably the greatest living composer in Europe. Sadly, today he along with his brother Michael even more, fly way under the radar today.

The symphony had already been used as material for a practical joke by the playful master when he wrote his “Farewell” symphony twenty years earlier, so when Haydn was spending time in London in 1792, his eyes lit up with another mischievous idea.

Franz had noted during his years with the Esterházy’s , that members of the royal court usually came to concerts after a big meal and would often nod off during the second (slow) movements of symphonies. Thus, he wrote the second movement of his symphony 94 in g major.

The movement is. marked andante, which means a walking tempo. The melody is light, mostly staccato, seemingly innocent,  and the first eight measures have the dynamic marking of piano. The melody is then repeated at pianissimo and this time ends with a bang. The rest of the movement follows the classical form of theme and variations on the original theme, and some times, to my ears, sounds like a musical laugh or smirk. I’ve known the piece since early grade school when I was introduced to it by my first piano teacher Gretchen, and decades later it still makes me smile today.

The symphony as a whole all deserves to be listened to, I cordially invite you to check it out.

After his time in London, which he loved; Haydn returned to Vienna a wealthy man. Something totally unheard-of for a musician during that time.

Also around this time between his stays in England, Haydn became a teacher/mentor to the then young  Beethoven. “I took instruction from Haydn, but didn’t learn anything” he said; but Ludwig still honored the aging composer with dedications of his first three piano sonatas.

It is actually not certain if Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31st or April 1st, but he preferred to celebrate it on the 31st. My first piano teacher Gretchen loved the music of Haydn very much, and ironically she also died on March 31st. No, that was not a joke, I really didn’t make that up; the symphony is way more tasteful of a joke than that could have ever ben.

Haydn’s music is as fresh now as it was back when he wrote it. Hopefully people will still be enjoying Haydn’s music, including his symphony 94 for another 200 years.

Thoughts on how I keep remembering Beethoven’s birthday, music and technology

It is possible that if it hadn’t been for Charles Schultz, and through his Peanuts cartoons , December 16th being the birthday of Ludwig Van Beethoven would have been as unknown to most of us today as the birthdays of the other great composers. In the Charlie Brown Christmas special recorded in 1965, one of his best friends Schroeder plays the opening measures of Fur Elise to celebrate the birthday of the Viennese master. Though played with a simplified left hand part, it’s still a nice touch decades later. In one of his  comic strips, Schultz has Schroeder forget Beethoven’s birthday and then be reminded by Lucy  that he had forgotten.

 

My youngest though still older sister, Andrea, introduced me to Beethoven’s music when I was in middle school and with Schroeder still in my subconscious, I decided i wanted to celebrate Beethoven’s birthday in my 8th grade year. I copied 2 records I had to a tape, in mono no less, and listened to them on my bus ride to school and home, half an hour each way. By the end of the next year, I had taped recordings of all nine Beethoven symphonies, and hearing all of them in a row has been my celebratory tradition ever sense still 32 years later.. Not only have I heard the quality of the recordings improve over the decades, hearing a set of pieces spanning over a composer’s lifetime is a great way too also experience first hand how their style developed and changed over time. From tapes played on a mono player, then to a walkman, then to cd’s, to an mp3 player, to streaming lossless off my Synology network server first time this year, not only has the audio improved amazingly but also the convenience e.g. I don’t have to make sure the next tape is lined up.

Beethoven’s first 2 symphonies though still somewhat classical in style paying homage to Haydn and Mozart, still have moments here and there that totally make the listener sit up and take notice, moments that are clearly Beethoven’s. His 3rd symphony completely changed what a symphony had been to that point, and is considered the first of his mature symphonies, as well as in the minds of some musicologists the first piece of the Romantic period. Looking at the Beethoven symphonies, beginning with the 3rd, each symphony has a story to tell, and all of them collectively as well as individually are strong affirmations to life, to the human condition. That, even though Beethoven’s childhood was harsh and much of his adult life silent due to his deafness, that there are still moments totally worth living for and hoping for in the future; Beethoven’s symphonies are all more than worth the time to explore and understand.

While writing this post, I listened from the finale of the 3rd symphony, to the end of the scherzo movement 3 of symphony 5.
There’s a little of Schroeder in me too, I went to Edgewood College  who  puts on a Christmas concert every year and twice during these concerts I played a Beethoven solo. The coolest of them was on 12/16/1991 when I played the 1st movement of his piano sonata op. 31 no. 2 “The Tempest”; Andrea along with our parents were in attendance