In Search of Haydn

Review by © Jane Freebury

The ‘in search of’ formula has worked well for British documentary maker Phil Grabsky. He has been on the trail of Beethoven and Mozart and has recently traced the life of another iconic figure of European music, Joseph Haydn. Not as high profile as his two contemporaries, who were pupil and friend respectively, but this son of a wheelwright and former choirboy who became composer to the Hungarian nobility provides plenty of good material too.

Unlike Stephen Fry, so often in front of camera on his personal odyssey in Wagner and Me, Grabsky is nowhere to be seen or heard, though he is of course an unacknowledged guiding presence. It’s his style to let the numerous experts he interviews, including singers and musicians who perform Haydn’s composition, to chat away to camera without interposing his own personality. This worked better in the two previous films, where the colossal Beethoven and Mozart each dominated. Here, however, the portrait of this ‘simple, honest, pleasant man’ tends to be not quite so compelling.

The impact is cumulative instead as we get to know more about the ‘genial, joyous and outgoing’ man who, despite his isolation working far from the cultural intensity of Vienna, became a creative powerhouse of 18th century classical music.
Apparently a hero in his own lifetime, he was very influential on the concept of classical musical forms in Europe and was lionised as a celebrity and became a very wealthy man on his visit to England towards the end of his career. And I thought that sort of thing only began last century.

Haydn had an unusually long and prolific career. From his late teens until his early 70s he composed nearly every day, and that’s a big creative output on any measure. It was also quite possibly harder to achieve, as he lived out in the sticks on the Esterhazy estate and did not enjoy the cultural stimulation of city life. Nor did he travel much, although he clearly wished he could have.

Nonetheless, Hadyn appears to have absorbed the zeitgeist. They say he was a man of his time, with a ‘diplomatic’ way of allowing each musical instrument its own voice. A very democratic gesture in an age of political tumult and revolution.

At the same time he was a ‘bond servant’ on the staff of the Esterhazy family, expected to match his outputs with corporate goals. Imagine, the Esterhazy family built a palace to rival Versailles and they strove to rival the Hapsburgs themselves in wealth and influence. It appears Hadyn’s music could be many things to many people.

In a capsule: An absorbing biopic of a prolific and long musical career. Full of excerpts from Haydn’s work recorded live and interviews with the experts who count, those who sing or play his compositions.

3.5 stars