Over on Radio 3 they're knee-deep in Haydn at the moment, it being his bicentenary and all. In his lifetime he was considered the greatest composer in Europe, the kind of accolade which seems to end in plummeting stock once someone's heirs begin to have their Oedipal way (cf Mendelssohn - another revelation of this year of anniversaries - being murdered by Wagner). But not any longer: Haydn's risen again in critical esteem since the 70s, when I was told that if it sounded like Mozart, but was duller and you didn't recognise it, then it was Haydn. And of course art is art and craft is craft, so there's much for a writer to chew on in what's being said about a composer of consummate craftsmanship, erudition and humour. Ages ago, in Brainy and Sexy, I was brooding on how all fiction balances new-and-strange with familiar, and how seeing it that way abolishes the gap between the Calvinists who preach that only the painfully difficult can defend us from the vulgar pollution of likeability, and the equally tedious Philistines who argue that anything not instantly likeable is so much showing-off and snobbery. So here's the fortepianist Robert Levin, contrasting the high Baroque of Bach (first prelude of the Forty-Eight) with Haydn's classicism:
it's very demanding of the audience because Bach does nothing to help you fit which chords belong to one sentence and which to another. You listen to the succession and decide where to breathe... he's not helping you by making things regular. Whereas a composer like Haydn... maximum clarity... give[s] the listener a sense of where he or she happens to be at that moment... then you can constantly predict what's going to happen... and be astonished, delighted and confounded if once in a while you don't get what you expect. Haydn is the master of masters of feeding you just enough material that you think "- maybe - maybe not - "
In other words, just because we go on and on about what's new ("fresh", as the book trade so often calls it, which always makes me think of lettuce), doesn't mean that new is the only thing which matters in writing. New can't work if it's not springing from a bedrock of old, unexpected only works if you were expecting something. And when it's done perfectly in both tone and timing, as Haydn does, it's wonderful because both new and old become a different kind of new: in Kearney's terms, in configuring our experience the music refigures it.
And then today, Stephen Johnson was explaining how Haydn could write 104 symphonies, when his successors rarely managed more than nine. (Yes, I know they're shorter, but not that much shorter). Haydn's position as court composer - a liveried, indentured servant - at the court at Esterhazy, would seem impossibly restrictive, composing to order in the middle of a malarial swamp hundreds of miles from anywhere, at the mercy of the musicians whom his lord chose to allow or refuse, and with a harridan of a wife back in his apartments. But as anyone who writes sonnets or three-minute pop songs would recognise, perhaps it was having to cope with the oboes having been given a holiday, or the awkwardly-syllabled name of the princess's fiancé, which prompted him to come up with new things. Maybe being miles from anywhere made him have to dig within himself for inspiration: he suggested so himself.
Maybe the likes of Beethoven did us a disservice in some ways. He was young when his idol Haydn was old, and he was the first generation of freelance composers, the epitome of the Romantic and revolutionary movements, of the artist as a passionate, uncompromising, misunderstood man (always a man) bowing the knee to none, a soul above and beyond mere mortals. But what do you do with a blank page if there's no reason to write on it except to express your grand vision of humanity and mortality? Should you fall short, then surely it wouldn't have been worth doing at all? Maybe having to come up with the goods for Saturday's concert, or Good Friday's vigil, year after year, meant that Haydn was free to get going, without the terror of the blank page which Stravinsky described (another composer who could only write once he knew, in Johnson's word, that it had to be twenty minutes and no clarinets). Helen Dunmore too, talking about writing stories, suggests that you commission yourself as if you were a magazine editor, in a given style, for a given space. It's not a philistine conviction that all this artsy-fartsy fussing about muses is just so much egocentricity and procrastination, which makes me think it's helpful. It's that once you've got something to start from, to chew on, to build in - even if it's only that the first violin's eloped with the third oboe, and his understudy is a drunkard - then you've got something to start thinking against. And it's in thinking against - looking at the old to find the new - that you just might actually find that grand vision.
I shan't be around for a couple of weeks, and may not be able to okay comments for a bit either, but I'll be back.