Top Ten: The Vienna Four

New York Times Arts Beat blog by Anthony Tommasini, Chief music critic for the New York Times: Top 10 Composers: “The Vienna Four”:

“For any attempt to determine the top 10 classical composers in history, like the one we embarked on in the Arts & Leisure section on Sunday, the Viennese Classical period presents a special challenge. If such a list is to be at all diverse and comprehensive, how could 4 of the 10 slots go to composers — Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert — who worked in Vienna during, say, the 75 years from 1750 to 1825? What on earth was going on there to foster such achievement?

The only Vienna native of the four was Schubert. Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the son of a wheelwright, was born in lower Austria. But by the age of 8 he was a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He was booted out of the choir when his voice changed in his late teens, and he became a freelance composer, performer and teacher. So during his childhood and young adult years, Haydn was immersed in the greatest music of Germanic culture.

At 29 he went to work for Prince Paul Esterhazy, who died in 1762 and was succeeded by his brother Nikolaus, a passionate music lover. Haydn spent nearly 30 years presiding over the musical activities at the prince’s palace 30 miles outside Vienna as well as at the summer residence over the border in Hungary. Still, during these decades Haydn was a regular visitor to Vienna, where he presented his works, soaked up musical life, made friends (with Mozart, among others) and joined a Masonic lodge. In 1790, the prince having died, Haydn moved back to Vienna, a beloved master (Papa Haydn) and popular composer.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), though born in Salzburg, spent extended periods of his childhood as a prodigy on tour throughout Europe. The arduous trips undermined his health and nearly killed him a couple of times. When these ventures failed to produce a patron or coveted position, Leopold Mozart compelled his son to buckle down and settle in Salzburg. But Wolfgang, itching to get to the big city, made his break at 25 and lived in Vienna until his death, through periods of triumph and exasperation, writing his greatest works during his last, heady decade.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was born in Bonn, Germany, the son of a drunken, abusive court singer. He tried to escape to Vienna at 16 but had to return to stabilize the family when his mother’s health deteriorated. Six years later he was back in Vienna, and he never left. He soon became a towering figure there, his path-breaking works both intriguing and baffling listeners, including his former teacher Haydn.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was born in Vienna to an impoverished schoolteacher and briefly became a teacher, until he threw himself into music and lived as a struggling freelance composer at a time when the patronage system was breaking down. Still, Schubert had a support system of friends and musicians who adored him and were sure they had a genius in their midst.

So what was going on in Vienna to make it such a hotbed of musical creativity? Do not presume that cultural life was especially enlightened or that the average Viennese music lover was uncommonly sophisticated. As Harvey Sachs points out in his recent book, “The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824,” terms like “crossover,” “kitsch” and “dumbing down” could easily have been applied to the Vienna of Beethoven’s day, and the typical citizen “clamored to hear the forebears of today’s virtuoso firebrands, schlock-mongers and half-pop, half-serious opera singers.”

Yet clearly there were musically astute listeners, as well as informed monarchs and patrons, who got what was going on. Haydn is often called the father of the symphony as it came to be known. I’d throw in the father of the string quartet and the piano sonata. Haydn was a pioneer in figuring out how to write a sizable multimovement instrumental piece that sounded organized and whole, an entity. The system of sophisticated tonal harmony had developed to the point where a genius like Haydn could figure out how to process themes and manipulate key areas to dramatic effect throughout the many sections of a long work. Moreover, Haydn was the first great master of what is called motivic development, in which bits and pieces of music — a few notes, a melodic twist, a rhythmic gesture — become the building blocks for an entire symphony in several movements.

Haydn passed this technique on to his recalcitrant student Beethoven, who, for all his notions of having invented himself, was deeply indebted to Haydn. Beethoven took the technique of motivic development even further. If you were going to make a case for Beethoven as the greatest composer in history, you would base it on his ability to make a long work, like the “Eroica” Symphony, seem like a musical monument in motion. For all the episodic shifts and turns of this piece, as it plows through four dramatically contrasting movements, most of the music is generated from a handful of motifs that you hear at the beginning.

Then, in his late phase, Beethoven entered a realm that transcended eras and periods. By then completely deaf, Beethoven touched the mystical. Every time I play the first piece from the Six Bagatelles (Op. 126), Beethoven’s last work for piano, I am stunned all over again. This seemingly modest little piece (as its title implies), just a single page of music, with its deceptively simple melody, is wondrous strange, almost cosmic.

Mozart knew all about motivic development too. But the technique did not come as naturally to him. He was a theater man at heart. It’s inspiring to see the sketches for the Mozart operas, in which all he writes are the vocal lines fitted to the words, and a bass line below, with a few chords here and there. Clearly, setting the text and getting the dramatic structure of the opera was the first task and the hard part. Filling in all the rest came later, which, for Mozart, was fairly easy if time-consuming.

When Mozart wanted to write a symphony or chamber work in the Haydn manner, as a motif-driven entity, he could certainly do it. Think of his last three symphonies or the six quartets he dedicated to Haydn. But it took great effort, as he admitted in the moving dedication of those quartets.

Still, even Mozart’s sonatas and symphonies are full of operatic touches. When I was in music school, I was always baffled when fellow pianists who claimed to love the Mozart piano concertos and sonatas said that they had no real feeling for the operas, not being opera buffs. How can you play, say, Mozart’s Sonata in D (K. 311) without being immersed in the Mozart operas? The Rondo comes across like some duet from “The Marriage of Figaro.” In the main theme you can almost hear Susanna, as she coyly tries to charm her way out of a tight spot with her doting, jealous Figaro, who voices his suspicions in gruff bursts leading to the second theme.

The argument for Mozart as the greatest composer ever would be based on his astounding versatility: he is at the top, both as a maker of opera and as a composer of symphonic and chamber works. That he died at 35 was horrible. On the other hand, he had an early start. And how do you top “Don Giovanni” and the “Jupiter” Symphony?

But that Schubert died at 31 is for me the greatest loss in music history. Even though he wrote an astonishing number of works, in so many ways he was just getting going. In his last years he started to restudy counterpoint because he thought his skills were insufficient.

In his mature piano sonatas, chamber works and songs, Schubert, like Beethoven, entered some mystic place beyond era and cultural context. Think of the Sonata in A minor (D. 784), which in the opening movement veers with no warning from an eerily self-contained main theme through bursts of crazed chords and tremolos to a deceptively tranquil second theme, flowing by like some wistful folk song, only to be interrupted by slashing fortissimo chords.

If only for the hundreds of his songs that dominate the song repertory today and continue to stun, entrance and delight audiences, Schubert should make the cut. Right?

Yet one of these Vienna masters will have to be eliminated if we are going to leave spots for the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries. Might it be Haydn? Part of his legacy was carried on by his student Beethoven and his younger friend Mozart. I know musicians and critics who would howl at the idea that Haydn, who pioneered the string quartet and wrote some of the greatest works in that genre, would not be among the Top 5, let alone the top 10. What to do? For now, let’s put it off.”

Here is Tommasini’s ultimate Top 10 list – notice that, incredibly, Haydn and Mahler are not included (nor Johann Strauss II, father of the Viennese waltz):

1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
2. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 — 91)
4. Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
5. Claude Achille Debussy (1862 — 1918)
6. Igor Stravinsky (1882 — 1971)
7. Johannes Brahms (1833 — 97)
8. Giuseppe Verdi (1813 — 1901)
9. Richard Wagner (1813 — 83)
10. Bela Bartok (1881 — 1945)

Beethoven’s Bagatelle Opus 126 #1, played by Glenn Gould

Mozart’s Sonata in D K. 311:

Sonata in A minor D. 784:

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