CAN INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC TELL US SOMETHING?
‘Non partir, bell’ idol mio’
Haydn, Scena di Berenice, London, 1795
Haydn began his work by weaving a sort of romance, or programme, on which to hang the musical ideas, the colours. In this fashion he both stirred his imagination and directed it to a specific end.
Giuseppe Carpani Le Haydine, ovvero lettere sulla vita e le opere del celebre maestro Haydn (Milan: 1812)
Is it possible that an instrumental piece devoid of words can ‘tell’ us something? And, beyond its famous finale, does the ‘Farewell’ Symphony conceal any literary or ‘gestural’ meaning in the other movements? Carpani offers us, inter alia, three different interpretations of the musicians’ successive exits at the end of the symphony. The first explains that ‘the gesture’ prescribed in the score was a joke Haydn played on his instrumentalists, some of whom from time to time ‘played without energy, which was the death of music so full of fire, while others left on some pretext in the middle of the piece, and others again, through inattention, miscounted their bars of rest’. The second interpretation, by contrast, is that this was a means of dissuading Prince Esterházy from his apparent intention of disbanding his orchestra, which would have deprived the musicians of their livelihood. The third interpretation, the most famous one, is that Haydn was sending an ironic, sophisticated message intended to signify to the prince that the time had come to grant leave of absence to his musicians, some of whom he was keeping away from their wives. So how about the other fast movements, some of the most dramatic in Haydn’s output? Are they merely among the most successful fruits of the composer’s experiments during his ‘Sturm und Drang’ period, or do they perhaps also tell us something of the musicians’ anger and maybe even of the ardour they felt at being separated from their spouses? And, always providing we accept the third interpretation, could the sweet and relaxed theme that suddenly emerges after a fermata in the tumultuous opening Allegro assai perhaps represent, with its sinuous, feminine character, a sudden longing for those faraway young wives? We do not know, and perhaps it is not even important to know. In fact, as Carpani tells us: of the three interpretations, ‘choose the one that suits you best’. The important point is that music can always stimulate the imagination of the performers and listeners of yesterday and today in a thousand different and ever-new ways, just as was the case with Haydn who, again according to Carpani, ‘did not pretend to make his music say something that it cannot say, but only used these non-musical ideas to inspire his fancy to new flights, to guide its workings, and to give it fire and colour’.