"I never learned anything from Haydn", Beethoven is said to have told his friend, Ferdinand Ries. So begins one of the most commonly told anecdotes in the history of music. But is it true?
From our perspective in 2016, everything we 'know' about Beethoven has been filtered through 200+ years of myth-building, all of that tinged by the awestriking aura surrounding the IMMORTAL BEETHOVEN. But during the period when Haydn undertook teaching him composition lessons, late 1792-93, he was a smallish, darkish, pockmarked young man from Bonn with a precocious talent for playing the pianoforte, called Beethoven, still years away from all capital letters. By contrast, Haydn himself was a smallish, darkish, pockmarked old man who was, at the time, standing at the threshold of being the King of the Musical World. Perspective is everything.
Much of our understanding of the Haydn-Beethoven relationship comes from the Beethoven side of the story. For various cultural reasons, the 19th century saw a diminution in stature of all of the 'Classic Era' composers, and as always, those who stood highest, in this case, Haydn and Mozart, fell furthest. Beethoven, meanwhile, was the man in the right place at the right time to become the epitome of the new age of music, and none could have predicted just how high his star would rise. The problem this makes is that he was essentially surrounded by sycophants like Schindler, and to a lesser extent Ries and Czerny, and from them, every whim or caprice he uttered would become a verse in the Book of Ludwig from then on. Thus the supercilious sneers directed towards Haydn which I learned at my old Granny's knee, so to speak. But in a later, more enlightened age, some of these things have been reevaluated in the cold light of actual evidence, and a greater sense of what actually happened in 1793 is the result.
As we saw last time, the year was a bust for Haydn's plan of returning to England for The Season. In October, the Emperor's aunt, Marie Antoinette, was led into Revolution Square to follow her husband, Louis XVI into oblivion. War ravaged western Europe, making passage from Vienna to London a precarious adventure. And the music bag was empty, so along with teaching young Beethoven and younger Polzelli, Haydn was busily writing music for next year. Beethoven was along with Haydn in Eisenstadt, where he spent his time alternately studying modal counterpoint from Haydn's lesson book copied from Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum, or looking over Haydn's shoulder as he composed the six string quartets of Opp.71/74, and playing the pianoforte for the entertainment of their hosts, the Esterházy family. He proved to be popular enough with them that they show up on the subscriber lists for his early works, and of course, living in one of the outbuildings there with food 'on the house' went a long way towards making ends meet.
I have written before about Haydn's belief that Fux provided the ideal textbook for composition. He first came under its spell in the early 1750's, and continued reading and notating his copy until he died. The original book is written in Latin, and Haydn's exhaustive commentaries are likewise. He corrects errors, clarifies ambiguities and even criticizes some subject matter. He used it for teaching, and he loaned it to others for the same purpose. Mozart, for example, uses some of the same points, which are clearly from Haydn's annotations and interpretations, in the study exercises he developed for his student, Thomas Attwood, circa 1786 when the two were at their closest. Given the depth of detail which Haydn noted in Fux, it is a very fair thing to say he had a more complete and thorough understanding of it than anyone since Fux! This is something which it is well to remember.
Leading into the centennial of Beethoven's birth and for a few years thereafter, there was a flurry of scholarly activity and publications, even as there would be today. Gustav Nottebohm, a noted Beethovenian and fine scholar by the standards of the time, had determined to straighten out a few inaccuracies, as he perceived them, in the Beethoven biography. In particular, a book published in 1832 by Seyfried, a fellow student of Beethoven, which opened with the line "These studies of the Unforgettable Master represent so invaluable a legacy to the entire world of the arts that it would have been preposterous to make even the slightest changes" sort of sums up the entire question so far, yes? But to Nottebohm's credit, he did succeed in proving that Seyfried's book was a work of fiction. The problem is, in doing so, he introduced his own brand of fiction into the discussion.
If you were a Beethoven scholar in 1870, or even for many years after, that line from Seyfried rang true no matter the reality. So Nottebohm believed that when Beethoven said he learned nothing from Haydn, and in other places that he complained that Haydn didn't even correct his work, that was the true gospel from which all else flowed. In addition, Nottebohm was not really a musicologist, and when he looked at the original exercises and saw some uncorrected errors, they merely served to reinforce his belief that Haydn was a careless and slipshod teacher. His conclusion, that Haydn did Beethoven wrong, was gospel for the next 100 years. And for a vast number of authors and liner note writers, it still is today.
In 1970, for the bicentennial of Beethoven's birth, another musical historian/musicologist, Alfred Mann, set out to review Nottebohm 100 years later (Beethoven's Contrapuntal Studies with Haydn). What he found was that the conclusions of Nottebohm were greatly based on interpretation, not on any sort of cut and dried issues. By all appearances, Nottebohm didn't consider other possibilities when he drew his conclusions. As an example, certain errors are corrected while other errors on the same page are ignored. To Nottebohm, this was a sign of hasty and superficial review. Or, during the correction of an error called 'parallel fifths', Haydn's solution introduced a second error, 'parallel octaves'. Obviously, Haydn didn't have a good grip on Fux! Well, someone doesn't have a good grip on Fux, that much is true.
Mann proposes and supports some very logical alternatives. Haydn had Beethoven working on some very specific problems, not on problems in general. And those specific problems are corrected to the smallest detail. Even where some occurrences are corrected while others of the same error are not, since they were sitting in the same room working together, verbal instruction on the error was more probable than merely possible. Or equally, 'I am showing you the error here, go through the rest and find other occurrences'. As for the 'parallel' issue, there can be no doubt that the 'error' which Haydn introduced sounds far superior to the error which was corrected. Since Haydn and Beethoven had already been together for several months, and Haydn had looked over several of his compositions, can there be any doubt that he realized Beethoven was far more concerned over results than over application of rules? Does this not echo Haydn's own attitude towards rules? Without question, Haydn saw a bit of himself when he looked across the table!
If you are a musical theorist or an interested musician, the paper is readily available. The summary is what interests us here, though. Given the workload Haydn had on his shoulders at the time, and the expectations which Beethoven had (rightly or wrongly) of being the only thing of importance to a teacher, something which wouldn't even come to be in the future when he worked with other teachers, Haydn gave Beethoven something far greater than simple rote instruction. As Mann puts it,
"Studies in music theory and music history were separate domains ruled by different standards… and it is for this reason that he (Nottebohm) does not grasp the full scope of Haydn's didactic influence. …Haydn's instruction guided his student far beyond the rudiments of the polyphonic language. To Beethoven applies in equal measure what Alfred Einstein wrote of Mozart: "he learned from Haydn to handle polyphony and counterpoint lightly, as a playful exercising of humor and wit, although, also, to be sure, as an object of the greatest seriousness"".
Is there a greater lesson for the would-be composer?
Late in the year, as Haydn was beginning to wrap things up in preparation for the trip to London, he reached out to the Elector in an attempt to get a few gulden into Beethoven's pockets for the trip. He asked for some compositions, possibly not telling Beethoven what they were for, and took what he was given and sent them to the Elector, along with this very complimentary letter.
[HAYDN TO MAXIMILIAN FRANZ, THE ELECTOR OF COLOGNE, BONN. German] [Only signature & title autograph]
Serene Electoral Highness !
I humbly take the liberty of sending Your Serene Electoral Highness some musical works, viz., a Quintet, an eight-part Parthie, an oboe Concerto, Variations for the fortepiano, and a Fugue, compositions of my dear pupil Beethoven, with whose care I have been graciously entrusted. I flatter myself that these pieces, which I may recommend as evidence of his assiduity over and above his actual studies, may be graciously accepted by Your Serene Electoral Highness. Connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs must candidly admit, from these present pieces, that Beethoven will in time fill the position of one of Europe's greatest composers, and I shall be proud to be able to speak of myself as his teacher; I only wish that he might remain with me a little while longer.
While we are on the subject of Beethoven, Your Serene Electoral Highness will perhaps permit me to say a few words concerning his financial status. 100# [ducats] were allotted to him during the past year. Your Serene Electoral Highness is no doubt yourself convinced that this sum was insufficient, and not even enough to live from; undoubtedly Your Highness also had his own reasons for choosing to send him into the great world with such a paltry sum. Under these circumstances, and to prevent him from falling into the hands of usurers, I have in part gone bail for him and in part lent him money myself, with the result that he owes me 500 fl., of which not a Kreutzer was spent unnecessarily; which sum I would ask you to send to him here. And since the interest on borrowed money grows continually, and is very tedious for an artist like Beethoven anyway, I think that if Your Serene Electoral Highness were to send him 1000 fl. for the coming year, Your Highness would earn his eternal gratitude, and at the same time relieve him of all his distress: for the teachers which are absolutely essential for him, and the display which is necessary if he is to gain admission into numerous salons, reduce this sum to such an extent that only the bare minimum remains. As for the extravagance which one fears will tempt any young man who goes into the great world, I think I can answer for that to Your Serene Electoral Highness: for a hundred circumstances have confirmed me in my opinion that he is capable of sacrificing everything quite unconstrainedly for his art. In view of so many tempting occasions, this is most remarkable, and gives every security to Your Serene Electoral Highness in view of the gracious kindness that we expect that Your Highness will not be wasting any of your grace on usurers as far as Beethoven is concerned. In the hope that Your Serene Electoral Highness will continue his further patronage of my dear pupil by graciously acceding to this my request, I am, with profound respect,
Your Serene Electoral Highness most humble and obedient,
Capell Meister von Furst Nicolas Esterhazy
Vienna, 23rd November 1793.
Haydn does seem quite proud of his student, confident in his efforts, and assured of his ultimate success. So you can imagine his consternation and embarrassment when he receives this reply a few weeks later!
[To HAYDN FROM MAXIMILIAN FRANZ, THE ELECTOR OF COLOGNE.German]
[Draft in a secretary's hand, corrected in the Elector's hand].
To Prince Esterházy's Kapellenmeister [sic] in Vienna
Bonn the 23rd of December 1793
I received the music of the young Beethoven which you sent me, together with your letter. Since, however, with the exception of the Fugue, he composed and performed this music here in Bonn long before he undertook his second journey to Vienna, I cannot see that it indicates any evidence of his progress.
Concerning the money which was hitherto available for his subsistence in Vienna, it is true that this consists only of 500 fl. [450, actually]; but apart from these 500 fl., his salary here of 400 fl. has been paid to him the whole time, so that he will always receive 900 fl. annually. Therefore I do not see at all why his financial circumstances should be as reduced as you have indicated to me.
I am wondering if he would not do better to begin his return journey here, in order that he may once again take up his post in my service: for I very much doubt whether he will have made any important progress m composition and taste during his present sojourn, and I fear that he will only bring back debts from his journey, just as he did from his first trip to Vienna.
Yikes! Not even signed!! Well, this had to be pretty distasteful for Haydn. Probably for Beethoven too, one would have to believe. The unprecedented rudeness of the Elector's reply to Haydn can really only mean one thing: he felt as though Haydn was party to some scheme by Beethoven to get more money. Probably he reconsidered that later on, since in the long run he maintained his high opinion of Haydn, but at the time it must have stung. And while it caused a breach of trust between the two musicians, and very likely resulted in Haydn leaving for London a few weeks later without his pupil, he didn't leave Beethoven in the lurch; he arranged with his old friend Johann Georg Albrechtsberger to continue the counterpoint lessons. This he did, taking up where Haydn left off, after modal counterpoint and into tonal. For his part, Beethoven applied himself to the lessons for quite some time before moving along. But the relationship which had existed with Mozart was never to become a reality with Beethoven. Despite further legends, there was always mutual respect there, but never again any degree of closeness.
Next time, we will look at some of the music produced in this year, nearly all destined for the busy metropolis impatiently waiting across the Channel.
Thanks for reading!