A Chequered musical quilt of an autobiography, in song-shaped episodes. My Pop Life takes one moment in my life and looks at it through a piece of music. Sometimes the piece of music fits that moment really well, other times not. It is not a list of my favourite songs. It is my look back at an eventful, dysfunctional, random musical life. It is therapeutic and hopefully without regret. There is no plan. Here is one entry.
I reckon Haydn is a bit under-rated. You never hear much about Haydn do you? Not like you hear about Mozart or Beethoven, his contemporaries and friends. Or Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky. Bach. Elgar, Prokofiev and Ravel. Haydn is like – well I was going to say obscure but that would be absurd. He feels less celebrated. Probably my hallucination. He wrote 106 symphonies, yes that is correct, 106 symphonies between 1759 and 1795 which works out to about 3 per year: one of his nicknames is “the father of the symphony“. He also wrote 68 string quartets over this period, giving him a 2nd nickname “the father of the string quartet“. The mother of these things is not revealed. His work tends towards the optimistic and positive, and the pieces develop their themes quickly his symphonies are short (each movement between 4 and 9 minutes) and easy to listen to. Largely written for royalty and for dancing, he was in many ways the pop lord of his day.
He was tremendously popular in England and lived in London on two separate and happy occasions between 1791-95 while still working on the continent, sometimes with a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven as his pupil. Towards the end of his prolific life he sat down and composed three longer and more serious works – all oratorios, called The Creation, The Seasons and The Seven Last Words Of Christ. These influenced Beethoven to levels of genius.
I love Haydn. They are works that make you feel happy. There is a level of complexity in the music that your brain can grasp immediately. Very pleasing. They are also “Tunes”, as my friend Luke Cresswell once described a Bach piece. I think the first Haydn CD I bought was on the Naxos label and had the 85th, the 92nd and the 103rd Symphonies on there. I had no idea what I was buying, but that’s often how I buy music, as a kind of lucky dip. It was around 1996, I’d just moved to Brighton, and perhaps I’d just finished A Respectable Trade which was set in Haydn’s era and had come across the name there. I wrote a little about that TV show, which was about British slavery and in which I played a doctor opposite my wife who played a slave, in My Pop Life #122. Life is long indeed. I liked my Haydn CD very much and for a while listened to nothing but.
As I recall I quickly went out and bought another one which had the 45th, 94th and 101st Symphonies on it. I can report that it was also most excellent. If you are reading this and have never knowingly listened to Josef Haydn then I would advise you first not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount available. There’s a lot of Billie Holiday out there too, and Duke Ellington. But just dive in. It’s refreshing and wonderful stuff.
In September 2005 I was cast in a Hollywood film adaptation of Christopher Paolini‘s book Eragon, written when he was 15 years old. Dragon with an E. It starred Ed Speleers as the dragon-tamer, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovitch, Sienna Guillory and Chris Egan and others and we were all flown out to Budapest in Hungary in early October. I’d been there before of course, first in 1975 (see My Pop Life #70), then again in 2000 on Last Run, a film with Ornella Muti, Jurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante. Once again, Budapest had changed quite a lot. Mafia types hung around the centre after dark. There were no more cimbalom players gracing the quaint restaurants. Now in 2005, things seemed a little harsher. Still the beautiful Blue Danube (copyright Johann Strauss) flowed through the centre. One of the oldest subway systems in the world.
We were fitted for our costumes and my head was shaved, then we shot for a couple of days at the studio where I met scottish actor Gary Lewis for the first time and an old friend from Benin Djimon Hounsou again. We had worked together on Spielberg’s film Amistad in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island, where he’d played the slave leader Cinque and I was a Lieutenant in the US Navy.
Lots of imaginary dragons to act with, one giant one. Shortly thereafter I am driven for a few hours down the road to a small settlement called Celldömölk in the west of the Hungarian countryside. This will be where the rest of the film is shot, in an amazing extinct volcanic crater.
The design of the set in this green calderon is stunning. I am playing bald twins, one of whom is evil. It is quite good fun. But I have made no close buddy here, and on days off I have to amuse myself. I decide to hire a car and drive around. They don’t let me, but give me a driver and a car instead. One day we drive north to Sopron a beautiful town near the Austrian/Slovakian border. Indeed it is only a few miles from both Vienna and Bratislava.
My driver and I took lunch together and drove into the countryside toward the huge lake. We spotted a sign for Esterháza and something clicked in my mind. We went to find it. It was a beautiful clear autumn day, blue sky, warm.
There it was, a stunning golden palace set in formal gardens. We walked around the grounds, went inside and found a little information. Yes, this was the home of the Austro-Hungarian, (formerly Habsburg) Esterházy family, principal patrons of Josef Haydn who was their Kapellmeister from 1761 until his death. He was permitted to travel to England for the 1790s when Prince Anton’s reign did without the service of musicians, trying to save money. But this was where he worked and lived and produced all of his key works, almost in total isolation from the rest of Europe and the other composers. It was a good find.
After his reportedly joyous time in London and Oxford where Haydn was feted and adored, he returned to Esterháza and composed his final works including the late String Quartets and the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser which was inspired by the British national anthem God Save The King – an anonymously composed tune which is frankly a dirge. Nevertheless Haydn wanted Austria/Hungary (as it was then) to have its own patriotic anthem so he composed it as a birthday gift for the Emporer Francis II. It premiered in 1797 and also appeared in String Quartet #62 – the 2nd Movement, ever since known as ‘The Emperor‘. It will be immediately apparent to listeners that the entirely memorable and beautiful tune lives on to this day as the Deutschlandlied or the German national anthem. Haydn didn’t write the words but I’ll note in passing that “Deutchsland Deutschsland über alles“, the opening line, is often misrepresented as a nazi slogan when it actually refers to national unity. Germany didn’t exist in 1797 and the small states and principalities the lyrics appealed to were only unified in 1871.
I was brought up hating Germans. My parents were evacuated during World War Two and Paul and I played on bomb debris sites in Portsmouth in the early 60s. As a child playing bang bang war games ‘The Germans’ were always the enemy. Six months after completing Eragon I was on my way to Germany with my wife Jenny in a Citroen draped in the St George’s Cross. Oh the clashing ironies. I believe St George was Macedonian. Popular in Bulgaria too. Haha. Nationalism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, but football will do that. I’m not a fan of National Anthems either but some of them are just great tunes, just like some flags are great designs….
The 2006 World Cup that summer was one of the best we have been to – brilliantly organised yes, but also charming, funny, gentle, relaxed, modern and fun. Germany had left the past behind long before the rest of us.
Shortly after our drive from Hamburg to Nürnberg, Bad Kreuznach to Dortmund I received a phone call from Hollywood from the producer of Eragon. “I’m sorry Ralph” he said, “But we’ve cut the Twins from the film, they came in too late for any more new characters and we needed to get to the fighting. Nothing personal – you were great, and thanks, but apologies“.
“Thanks for letting me know,” I said. “You didn’t have to do that“.
When the film was released in December 2006 it was one of the worst-reviewed films of that year. I wasn’t in it at all.
I still got paid, and I still get royalties.
Mozart and Beethoven both loved Josef Haydn.
So do I.
The performance below is by The Veridis Quartet (rather than The Lindsay Quartet whose version has been removed from YouTube) – but this is rather splendid too.
This is the 2nd movement only – seek out the full 62nd string quartet for yourselves.
Ralph Brown is an actor, writer and musician who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He has worked in the West End, Broadway and Hollywood and his writing has been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese.
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