Haydn peek

One of the Naxos label’s distinguishing features is the sustained effort it applies to promoting the music of lesser-known composers, those who are undisputed craftsmen, but have been sadly overshadowed by greater names in the course of music history. Spare a thought, then, for such a composer who was born on the same date as this blog’s posting, September 14, in the Austrian village of Rohrau in 1737. The name of that village might have already set a bell ringing, since it’s also where the great Franz Joseph Haydn was born. No coincidence, since the focus of today’s snapshot is a peek at his younger brother, Michael Haydn.

Achieving due recognition was never going to be easy for him since there were two more from the large brood of Haydn siblings (Johann Evangelist and Johann Michael) who went on to make their mark musically. Yet, in his day, Michael Haydn did indeed create a substantial impression and receive a good measure of acknowledgment. Not least from his elder brother. Franz Joseph considered Michael’s sacred works to be very fine, and maybe superior to his own in terms of devotional intensity. Let’s start, then, by hearing the Dies irae from Michael’s Requiem in C minor (C71084).

Requiem in C minor:

Having gravitated to Salzburg in 1763 to find his niche in the court’s musical life there, Michael went on to serve two Prince-Archbishops – Sigismund Christoph Schrattenbach and Hieronymus Colloredo – for more than 40 years. The mention of Salzburg during this period may ring another bell. Archbishop Colloredo was the employer-cleric who parted ways with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and with no love lost.

Leopold, Wolfgang’s father, had joined the Salzburg court orchestra as a low-ranking violinist in 1743 and spent the next twenty years slowly working his way through those ranks to become the deputy Kapellmeister. Michael Haydn arrived at court the same year, 1763, and following a mere 12-month probationary period was appointed above Leopold’s head to the chief position of ʻHof- und Konzertmeisterʼ. Wounded that he had not been elevated to this prestigious post after several decades of service, Leopold declared himself unimpressed with Haydn, whom he considered to be slapdash and neglectful of his duties. While the thought of that scenario settles in, we can listen to part of the sixth movement from Michael’s Serenade in D major (C029071A).

Serenade in D major:

Music of that quality may have failed to appease Leopold’s chagrin, but it wasn’t lost on his son. Indeed, a close bond of friendship and a professional mutual respect was to develop between Wolfgang Amadeus and Haydn, and there’s evidence to suggest that the young Mozart not only actively promoted Michael’s music in Vienna, but drew inspiration from and even modelled some of his compositions on his works. The stylistic similarities between the music of these two men was such that several of Michael’s works were long thought to be by Wolfgang. More of that in a moment. Listen now to the finale of Michael’s Trumpet Concerto in D major (C71005), and you might reasonably think that it came from the same stable as his elder brother’s famous concerto for the same instrument.

Trumpet Concerto in D major:

Resuming that thread of the close relationship between Wolfgang and Michael, it’s on record that in 1783, when Haydn was unable to finish a commission to write a collection of duets for violin and viola through illness, Mozart finished the pieces for him and sent them off with Haydnʼs name on the title page, to ensure that he was properly paid. By the very nature of his job, Michael’s large output of sacred works – the majority of his compositions – is the most noted part of his legacy. But he also produced a substantial oeuvre of secular music that includes stage works, secular cantatas, dances, marches and divertimenti. Here’s the opening movement of his Divertimento in C major (8.570178).

Divertimento in C major:

Michael also wrote over forty works entitled ʻSinfoniaʼ – that is, the symphony in its early form (and a term which was increasingly applied to the typical fast-slow-fast instrumental overtures to operatic works). His first Sinfonia in G (P. 16) (8.573497), composed in May 1783, was formerly attributed to Mozart. Along with his other works in this genre, it’s scored to suit the forces available at the Salzburg court: strings, pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns, and a single flute. Here’s that sinfonia’s last movement.

Sinfonia in G:

Michael had the opportunity to move on to other pastures later in life when his reputation was established, but he decided to stay put in Salzburg where he died in 1806, aged 68. No doubt the city was grateful for his considerable contribution to its music scene, which is now our inheritance, and one I hope you may care to explore further. The alto trombone is surely also grateful for the limelight Michael gave the instrument in a number of his works (did you recognise it in the Dies irae clip?). The instrument received scant attention from the concerto industry at the time, so we’ll end with a work that highlights it: a movement from Michael’s Divertimento for solo wind instruments and orchestra (8.553831).

Divertimento for solo wind instruments and orchestra:

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