Sunday, February 10, 2019


I've written before about my tortured relationship with Papa Haydn. I like this and that of his, and he was certainly talented and clever and highly influential and apparently counts the symphony and the string quartet among his children, so...good job by him. I just don't love his music the way some do - or as much as I love what he inspired in the likes of Mozart and Beethoven. Maybe it was from being told as a young person that Haydn was so funny and clever because he put a really big loud chord in the middle of an otherwise quiet and boring tune.

I really shouldn't hold this against him because he could hardly have imagined how overplayed this "joke" became. So, I've had the idea* for some time that it could use an updating, to keep the surprises fresh. I've tried to mix things up a little bit, though for now there are only about 20 possible outcomes,** including Haydn's original version. Step over here and give it a try! You'll see that Haydn is dutifully covering up the surprise in the score. (There's also a small surprise hidin' in the title.)

I'm probably as guilty as anyone (even before having put this together) of reducing this whole symphony to one silly moment. To be honest, even just the second movement alone is better than I'd remembered, and I particularly enjoyed stumbling on this delightful Alkan transcription for piano solo just now. I will also say that working on this project has actually made me enjoy this music even more - perhaps in part because I feel invested in it now, but also because I've appreciated how well Haydn's banal theme sets up the surprise. When his original version pops up to surprise me, it still works!

Of course, I have a longstanding interest in randonmess (see here and here and here) and in the kind of culturally embedded meanings that can make a surprise feel surprising even when we know it's coming. The whole idea of "classical music" has a lot to do with the idea that certain works are worth hearing over and over because they continue to sound fresh and engaging - if not always surprising. But in general, I think classical music culture needs a lot more genuine surprises....though I think we've got plenty of Haydn, thank you.

UPDATE: Although I love the idea that people would try this over and over, eventually landing on all 25 (as of now) surprises, the truth is that would likely take well more than 50 tries since each re-load is totally random. So, you may go to this little audio player and sample all 25 options in sequence. HINT: #1 is Haydn's original.


* I didn't want to lead with this, but the thing that brought this back to my mind was an amusing choir rehearsal misunderstanding, when the singers misheard "terraced dynamics" as "terrorist dynamics." This, of course, is a very natural and surely common mishearing, but it was new to me. In trying to think what "terrorist dynamics" might sound like (but not wanting to get too silly with actual, grim explosions), I tossed this together, and that got my mind spinning on this bit of Haydn.

** Part of me would definitely love to have 50 or more brilliant outcomes, but there are a few I like a lot, and I fear they'd never get heard if I had too many. Some of the current options are far from perfect, but who says every surprise should be a good or pleasant one?

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