Catherine Manson on the delights and challenges of Haydn

Haydn’s great string quartets are often taken for granted and programmed badly. Catherine Manson, who will be giving masterclasses for ChamberStudio on his op.20 nos.4 and 5 on 16th and 17th September, talks to Ariane Todes about why this has happened and discusses her approach to playing and teaching his works

 

Joseph HaydnGiven that Catherine Manson formed the London Haydn Quartet in 2000 with the sole mission of performing the composer’s entire canon, it’s not surprising she’s a powerful advocate for a musician she regards as unfairly treated these days. She has a theory about why this has happened: ‘One of the reasons that Haydn is maligned in the 21st century is that we listen in a 21st-century manner. We listen for about eight bars, make a whole set of assumptions about what the piece is like, and then switch off. But Haydn often sets out to say something completely normal in the first few bars and just at the point when the 21st-century listener switches off he departs from that in an extreme way, but it’s too late for us. The 18th-century listener is probably sitting there thinking, “This is suspiciously normal, but what’s going to happen?” and so they would delight in the transgressions from the normality.’

Haydn is also the victim of unimaginative programming, she explains: ‘You never hear more than the last twelve or so Haydn quartets. Sometimes you hear op.33, but rarely op.50 or op.54. Opp. 64, 76, 71 and 74 are more often played. But there are some earlier works that are incredible masterpieces: huge works that are dramatic and personal, but are never heard. People tend to start a concert with Haydn and then move on to “more serious” music, and there are only a few pieces that are jolly and short enough to start a concert. We decided to do concerts where you move from short, jolly Haydn quartets to a deep philosophical one and then a bright extravagant one. Then you can experience the variety of his work.’

We’re not surprised that material comes in the wrong place, but we should be, and we should be able to indicate that we weren’t expecting it to the audience

In what spirit should a group approach a Haydn quartet for the first time, and what are the challenges? ‘I would be excited to discover what starting point he’s chosen; what topic we’re talking about; what stance he is taking; how he is arguing it; what his conclusion is, both philosophically and emotionally; and what is the experience of playing it. With Haydn particularly, there are a hundred ways you could find to play any movement. The development sections often have extraordinary paths to follow, and there’s never a standard movement, so every starting point has a new feature, and themes will often come back in a different order in the recapitulation. But we’re so used to reading left to right and top to bottom that we don’t take the music apart. We’re not surprised that material comes in the wrong place, but we should be, and we should be able to indicate that we weren’t expecting it to the audience.’

Catherine MansonHow does she work on it with groups? ‘When I coach on Haydn, I encourage people to work out the structure, and to think about what they’re saying at any given moment and then find a way of doing that vividly, so that the communication of the exact rhetoric is clear to the listener and to each other. Try to clarify the rhetoric and the argument first, and then make your choices about how to convey that. There are thousands of choices open to you, and rather than starting with lots of possibilities and arguing them down to one that everyone’s happy with I encourage young players to think about all the options at any one moment, and to see how the circumstances that came before lead a particular interpretation to make sense. And then, if they are choosing a particular path, which one would make sense next?’

If you’re capable of thinking of what you decided in rehearsals then you’re not thinking through the music

How does work done at this level in the practice room transfer to performing on stage? ‘When they come to perform it they’re always creating rather than recreating. If you’re following the narrative in the moment and are properly involved with what you’re playing then you won’t be able to remember the rehearsal process. If you’re capable of thinking of what you decided in rehearsals then you’re not thinking through the music. But if you’re thinking from within the music you’ll find a way that makes sense and it may be entirely different from everything you’ve rehearsed before.’

In this sense, chamber music is a conversation between friends, Manson says: ‘You don’t preplan what you’re going to talk about with friends – you see where the conversation leads you. Then it’s alive. Occasionally two people might make one choice and the other two choose another option, but if everyone is alive and alert to the possibility, you can fix that quite quickly as it goes by. It helps to have a few basic rules, so the default might be that whoever has the governing voice makes the decision at that point. Usually these problems occur in development sections because there are more possibilities and modulations in different directions. You can feel it being in the group, but I’m not sure it’s evident to a bystander. If you feel it happening then the person with the main voice at that point has to take charge. You might have to abandon your choice and make a new direction out of it, even if it wasn’t what you’d planned to do.’

It does require everyone in the quartet knowing what everyone else has at any given moment

This sort of flexibility only works if everyone pulls their weight: ‘It does require everyone in the quartet knowing what everyone else has at any given moment, because suddenly a note in a chord from the viola will completely change the direction of the piece and everyone needs to be able to respond to what that note is going to do. It could be different every time.’

Haydn’s first violin parts are renowned for being mini-violin concertos, but they tend to fall into to two different styles, as Manson explains: ‘The early ones were written for Luigi Tomasini, who was a highly educated, sophisticated musician who’d studied in Italy and had an elegant, understated way of playing. Haydn said that Tomasini was the only one he could trust with a slow movement. Later, Johann Tost came to the court of Esterházy, where Haydn worked. He came from a much more folk music background, from a village in Hungary, so he knew lots of fiddle techniques, and was quick-witted and had a lot of tricks up his sleeves. The music written for him is entirely different: much more flashy, high up in the register, with gypsy string-crossings. So the two players produced very different music for the violin.’

Each person has their own poetry to consider and the whole is made up of all these interdependent things

He wrote brilliantly for the other instruments too: ‘Haydn knew so well how to write for the different voices, so at any moment there’s a proper role for all the instruments and no one is drifting around to fill in the texture. It’s a gift to play them and compelling for all four players, all the time.’ And there are many challenges for the inner parts, even if different ones to the virtuosity of the first violin: ‘They’re constantly in suspension, capable of moving either to work as a team with each other or together with the upper voice. In our quartet the inner voices work a lot at bow strokes that are going to make a texture come alive and on changing that subtly for each harmony. Very often they’ll have a staccato quaver on an off beat in a slow movement, for example, and when they get the shape of the note right it makes an enormous difference. They check how it fits into the chord, what it means to the overall shape of the tune, and what happens when the chord changes. I can’t think about that consciously as I play a tune above it because I’m more tied to the bass line. They are tied to the bass line too, but also to the tune. Each person has their own poetry to consider and the whole is made up of all these interdependent things.’

The work doesn’t stop at the end of a rehearsal, or even after a concert, as she explains: ‘Somehow one’s brain continues to work on the puzzle of a piece. The last phrases of Haydn’s F sharp minor often remain in my mind, for example. You can’t resolve these things, but that doesn’t stop the brain from trying. I’ve been woken up in the middle of the night trying to resolve the coda of Beethoven’s op.59 no.1.’

I feel immensely frustrated that there are so many references we don’t grasp

Sometimes the information needed to do so is lost in the mists of time, though: ‘I feel immensely frustrated that there are so many references we don’t grasp. For example, there might be movements of these quartets that are settings of Shakespeare scenes, and to the contemporary audience it might have been obvious. When we know the ones such as the reference to the vault scene from Romeo and Juliet that Beethoven uses in op.18, it makes a big difference.’

The challenge of learning and performing Haydn quartets – or any music – never really ends, she concludes: ‘It’s wonderful that composers set out these complex riddles for us, and they still want us to look at them and to figure them out, and to keep them company. Maybe there’s no answer, but it’s our duty to try to get as close to it as we possibly can and to pay them the respect of trying to solve their puzzles.’

 

Catherine Manson is on the faculty of ChamberStudio. We offer high-level, tailor-made coaching to chamber music groups in the early stages of their careers. Find out more and apply here.

 

 

 

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