Monday Motivation: Prejudice and the power of story
As a child my parents possessed a large radiogram. In the middle sat a turntable, below a radio, and on either side two narrow cupboards for long playing records. I don’t believe they cared at all for classical music – or, indeed, for music of any kind; but there were a handful of records including Saint-Saens’ Dans Macabre, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, something or other by Tchaikovsky – probably the 1812 overture – together with a few non-classical records like Oklahoma and Sing Along with Mitch Miller.*
And yet somehow, this slender resource planted a seed in me that flowered later when, as a university student, I bought my first record player and a steadily increasing number of classical albums.
My enthusiasm has always been untutored – but broad ranging. I can listen to Gregorian plainchant for hours on end. I adore Shostakovitch and Prokofiev. I can immerse myself in the hypnotic and seemingly endless repetitions of minimalists like Philip Glass, John Adams and Steve Reich.
But there is one great composer I have never really taken to. Compared to Beethoven, dull; compared to Mozart, unimaginative. Josef Haydn has seemed to me to fall between the stools of the passionate and mathematical Baroque composers – Bach, Handel, Vivaldi – and the lyrical and seductive classicists and romantics – Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Brahms.
A few weeks ago I decided to devote the next several months to a chronological exploration of the great composers, beginning with Hildegard of Bingen. I would dwell on representative works of each age of music’s best-known composers. So far, we’ve worked our way through the Medieval Period, the Renaissance and the Baroque age.
Next, of course, comes Classical Music, with more composers than you can shake a stick at. This would take us months at the very least. As I say, we were working chronologically, and one of the first composers in this era is, of course, Haydn.
I knew his output was prodigious. Did I want to spend days listening to his endless symphonies?** Well, I sighed, called up Wikipedia as a guide, and began with his early string quartets.
But while we were listening to these very first compositions – executed when he was 21 or so – I read the entry on his life.
He was born to parents of no distinction – his father was a wheelwright; before her marriage, his mother was a servant. When he was six, his father, recognising that he possessed some musical talent, sent him to a choir master in a distant town who promised to give him musical education. He did a bit of that; but ensured that the little boy never had enough to eat, and that his clothes were never cleaned. Fortunately, a year or so later, his talent was spotted by a visiting kapellmeister, who recruited him for his choir in the cathedral in Vienna.
His new master also kept him hungry. Later, Haydn recalled that he volunteered as often as he could to sing before aristocratic audiences because he knew the singers would usually be offered refreshments after they’d entertained their hosts.
At seventeen because his voice had broken and he could no longer sing treble in the choir, he was kicked out of his patron’s house. He decided to become a freelance musician, earning his living by giving music lessons, and busking on the streets of Vienna…
It was an inauspicious beginning – and yet, within a couple of decades he was widely acknowledged as the greatest composer of the age.
By this time my opinion of Haydn had changed completely. The story of his struggles – and his invariable good humour in the face of ill-fortune – persuaded me to listen not as a duty, but with interest and, in time, with ever-increasing pleasure.
I discovered, through the story of Haydn’s upbringing, that the prejudice that had had me avoiding him all my life was ill-founded.
Story can do that for you: change your mind, banish prejudice, broaden your horizons, and enrich your life in sometimes unexpected ways.
I know you don’t need to be persuaded that story is a power to be reckoned with – but it’s my guess that we all need to be reminded of that fact from time to time.
* Actually, the record I listened to most frequently was Sparky’s Magic Piano. But that’s another story.
** Astonishingly, although they are shorter than the symphonies of later composers, he composed 104 in total.