You ask me for an opera buffa. Most willingly, if you want to have one of my vocal compositions for yourself alone. But if you intend to produce it on the stage in Prague, in that case I cannot comply with your wish, because all my operas are far too closely connected with our personal circle (Esterház, in Hungary), and moreover they would not produce the proper effect, which I calculated in accordance with the locality. It would be quite another matter if I were to have the great good fortune to compose a brand-new libretto for your theater. But even then I should be risking a good deal, for no man can brook comparison with the great Mozart. If I could only impress on the soul of every friend of music, and on high personages in particular, how inimitable are Mozart’s works, how profound, how musically intelligent and how extraordinarily sensitive! (for this is how I understand them, how I feel them) — why then the nations would compete with each other to possess such a jewel within their frontiers. Prague should hold him fast — but should reward him, too: for without this, the history of great geniuses is sad indeed, and gives but little encouragement to posterity to further exertions; and unfortunately this is why so many promising intellects fall by the wayside. It infuriates me to think that this incomparable Mozart is not yet engaged by some imperial or royal court! Forgive me if I lose my head: but I love the man so dearly.
And thus Narcissus, cunning with a hand-glass, Preening a curl, and smirking, had his say. God’s pity on us all! he cried (half laughing) That we must die: that Lesbia’s curl be lost, And Shakspeare’s wit forgotten; and the potter — Who saw, one instant, all humanity, And phrased its passion in a single figure — That he be sunk in clay, and dumb as clay.
God’s pity on us all! he cried, and turned The guileful mirror in a guileful light; Smiled at the fair-curved cheek, the golden hair; The lip, the nostril, the broad brow, the hand; Smiled at the young bright smile … Alas, alas, To think that so great beauty should be lost! This gold, and scarlet, and flushed ivory, Be made a sport for worms!
But then a wonder Deepened his gazing eyes, darkened the pupils, Shaded his face, as if a cloud had passed. The mirror spoke the truth. A shape he saw Unknown before, — obscene, disastrous, huge, — Huge as the world, and formless … Was this he? This dumb, tumultuous, all-including horror? This Caliban of rocks? this steaming pit Of foisting hells, — circle on darker circle, — With worlds in rings to right and left, and other Starbearing hells within them, other heavens Arched over chaos? …
He pondered the vast vision: Saw the mad order, the inhuman god; And his poor pity, with the mirror dropped, Wore a new face: such brightness and such darkness, Pitiless, as a moonblanched desert wears.
Joseph Haydn, Destatevi, o miei fidi, cantata for 2 sopranos, tenor, chorus & orchestra (1763), Hob. XXIVa:2: 2. Grand’Eroe, del mondo [Duet - S, T]
Sunhae Im, soprano Max Ciolek, tenor
Cappella Coloniensis / Andreas Spering
Haydn’s cantatas from the ’60s have amazing pictorial power, nervous and volatile, but each usually ends and begins as an illustration. Here, the soprano, in her recitatives, makes the questionable claim that the joys of serving Prince Esterházy are greater than any of the joys the sea might yield up in pearls, shells, tuna fish, ambergris etc. And Haydn illustrates the words (ignoring the whole secondary idea of the calm and deliberate joys of service) by painting the rough and whitecapped sea.
Here’s another great cantata from the early years (from the same CD, with Sunhae Im, who doesn’t get enough praise) — similar in feeling, sonority, results: [x]
In alchemical work [George] Ripley was very much concerned in the observation of colour during the process. The appearance of a particular sequence meant the attainment of a stage in the process. It was as precise as the observation by a swordsmith of tempering colour in a blade. Each appearance indicated the appropriate poetic image of the process. It was a kind of meditation, although Ripley and his contemporaries appear to have thought of it as a fact being enacted before them. This makes understanding very difficult for us. Our prosaic attachment to observed demonstrable fact leads us to talk of metallic mercury instead of a grey wolf devouring the sun which is gold. So where the alchemist saw a drama we see a process of amalgamation. The Green Dragon is to us simply aqua fortis, a liquid which is so acid that it can even dissolve gold. Yet to the alchemist the picture conjured up in his furnace was much more important than an attempt to make a plain physical description. True, he was bound to secrecy and obscurity so that the great secret should not be betrayed to unsuitable people. Yet he really preferred the whole practical process to be part of the pictorial myth. One has no doubt that most of the images were archetypal and common to most of mankind. They occur in dreams with most of us in times of stress. The alchemist saw his visions as something outside his dreams, but we can share their content today. Only the young student seeing his first demonstration of mercury amalgamating with gold is likely to find the process reflected in a dream. To the alchemist the whole process was a living myth which was purifying the worker as it purified the sad, undifferentiated, and yet uncombined, materia prima with which he sought to work.
C.A. Burland, The Arts of the Alchemist (1967), 77
The well-known Ditters* and Haydn were youthful friends. Once the two were roaming the streets at night and stopped in front of a common beer hall in which some drunken and sleepy musicians were miserably fiddling away at a Haydn minuet. In those days Haydn composed pieces for the dance halls that, because of their originality, were much in favor. ‘Hey, let’s go in!’ said Haydn. ‘In we go!’ Ditters agreed. Into the beer hall they go. Haydn places himself next to the first violinist and asks offhandedly, ‘Who wrote that minuet?’ The latter answers, still more drily, indeed sharply, ‘By Haydn!’ Haydn goes and stands in front of him, and says with feigned wrath, ‘That’s a [pig] of a minuet.’ — ‘What, what, what?’ yells the violinist, now in a rage himself, jumping out of his seat, followed by the other players, who are about to break their instruments over Haydn’s head; and they would have, too, if Ditters, who was a big man, had not put up his arms to shield Haydn and shoved him out through the door.
A.C. Dies, Biographische Nachrichtenvon Joseph Haydn (1810)
*Later Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, the composer
Another great story, told by Dies, from Haydn’s pre-Esterházy years: “Haydn once took it into his head to invite a number of musicians for an evening serenade [Nachtmusik]. The rendezvous was in the Tiefer Graben, where the musicians were to place themselves, some in front of houses and some in corners. There was even a kettledrummer on the high bridge. Most of the players had no idea why they had been summoned, and each had been told to play whatever he wanted. Hardly had this hideous concert begun when the astonished residents of the Tiefer Graben opened their windows and began to scold, to hiss and to whistle at the accursed music from hell. Meanwhile the watchmen, or as they were then called, the Rumorknechte, appeared. The players escaped in time, except the kettledrummer and a violinist, both of whom were led away under arrest; however, they were set at liberty after a few days since they could not name the ringleader.”
At that time [the 1740s] many castrati were employed at court and in the Viennese churches, and the director of the Choir School no doubt considered that he was about to make the young Haydn’s fortune when he brought forth the plan to turn him into a permanent soprano [ihn sopranisieren zu lassen], and actually asked the father for his permission. The father, who vigorously disapproved of this proposal, set forth at once for Vienna and, thinking that the operation might already have been performed, entered the room where his son was and asked, ‘Sepperl, does anything hurt you? Can you walk?’ Delighted to find his son unharmed, he protested against any further proposals of this kind, and a castrato who happened to be there even strengthened him in his resolve. The truth of this anecdote was attested by persons to whom Haydn often related it.
Griesinger, Biographical Notes concerning Joseph Haydn (1810)