In Search of Haydn

In Search of Haydn
A film by Phil Grabsky [world premiere]

Preceded by a performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in G, Op.76/1 by Endellion String Quartet [Andrew Watkinson & Ralph de Souza (violins), Garfield Jackson (viola) & David Waterman (cello)]


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 12 January, 2012
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Following his 2006 250th-anniversary film, In Search of Mozart, and 2009’s follow-up, In Search of Beethoven, Phil Grabsky and his company Seventh Art, supported by Sky Arts (where this new film will be broadcast in March, following a limited cinematic release) has made In Search of Haydn.

The formula remains the same. Grabsky, claiming (still!) to be something of a musical ignoramus, goes in search of experts, both musicologists and practitioners, to create a birth-to-death survey of a composer. For those familiar with the films on Mozart and Beethoven, you’ll recognise a number of contributors – Bayan Northcott, Sir Roger Norrington, Ronald Brautigam, Emanuel Ax and, conducting, Frans Brüggen – joined this time by the infectious enthusiasm of Richard Wigmore and Tim Blanning, and performers in discussion such as Joseph Kalichstein, Alison Balsom, Marc-André Hamelin, Gautier Capuçon as well as contributions from custodians of Haydn museums in Vienna, Eisenstadt and Esterhazy. Once again the narrator is Juliet Stevenson and, following Sam West as Mozart and David Dawson as Beethoven, actor Henry Goodman reads from Haydn’s letters.

Grabsky’s direct documentary style may have some idiosyncrasies – close-ups are the order of the day with some odd perspectives in both interviews and especially performances – we could, I thought, have pulled back a bit from Gautier Capuçon to see more of the cello than a blur of fingering in the C major Cello Concerto, and when the artistic director of the Eisenstadt Haydn festival, standing outside the palace pointed to the cathedral “that is still here” the camera moved in the direction of where he was pointing, but not far enough! But with generous shots of contemporary prints of, particularly, Vienna and the palaces where Haydn served, there is plenty of colour to proceedings, enhanced with the restored hall with its ceiling paintings of Aurora, midday and Luna which, it is suggested, inspired Symphonies 6-8 – ‘Morning’, ‘Noon’ and ‘Night’.

Much shorter than the previous two films – at 100 minutes, some forty minutes shorter than Beethoven and thirty than Mozart – and encompassing a much longer life than both those composers, this is something of a whistle-stop tour, which means that some facets of Haydn’s career are lost; although the members of the Endellion Quartet appear in order to discuss the string quartets – the close of the film highlights the last notes Haydn wrote (though the caption for this incomplete final work wrongly numbers it as 103, rather than Opus 103, it’s the composer’s 68th quartet) – I felt there could have been more devoted to this pivotal genre. That said, a 100-minute film on the quartets alone would hardly cover the ground!

Everyone in the film is agreed on how nice Haydn must have been – even with passing reference to his unhappy marriage and his various mistresses – and the countenance of the documentary never falters from reflecting Haydn’s geniality. There’s a lovely set-piece with members of Orchestra of the 18th Century re-enacting the finale of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony and disappearing one-by-one, and – after Alison Balsom has enthused about Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto – the same players accompany a performance with the new-fangled valve trumpet that Haydn composed it for, quite unlike the modern instrument, with its spindly levers, fingered from the side rather than on top.

Like its forebears, In Search of Haydn offers an ideal introduction to the man and his music, commendably straight in its presentation and astute in its choices of whom to interview and perform.

There follows a response by Phil Grabsky to the above review:


Thank you for your review of my film IN SEARCH OF HAYDN. I hold your work in the highest esteem and was very thankful for your very positive and detailed reviews of my previous films on Mozart and Beethoven.

Your review of Haydn was again positive – ‘an ideal introduction’ – but I do feel the need to respond to one or two of the comments. I absolutely respect the right of a reviewer to say whatever he or she feels but I also respect the need for your audience to be correctly informed.

First of all, I absolutely do not claim to be ‘something of a musical ignoramus’ – what I said on stage in the Q&A is that I don’t play an instrument. That is hardly the same thing. I know my Bach from my Bartók. And I have a mountain left to learn and don’t mind admitting it. But ‘ignoramus’?

Secondly, it seems odd to me to comment in a fairly short review on the lack of a view of Eisenstadt cathedral when Walter Reicher mentions it in passing. I’m filming live and his point is that Eisenstadt is little changed since Haydn’s time and in my head as I swung the camera to see where he was pointing the houses gave absolute credence to his assertion. I didn’t need to keep swinging the camera to see a cathedral spire in the distance over the top of modern cars and shops.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, you state that my captioning of the last (unfinished) quartet is wrong. Actually my captioning of all the quartets follows one rule (which is the one followed by the musicians I checked this with) – ‘The Rider’ for example is referred to as no 74/3 even though it is quartet no 59. It is accurate to say that it is opus 74/3 but few (in my experience) call it Quartet no 59. While using the ‘K’ numbers for Mozart or the Opus categorisation for Beethoven is relatively straightforward, Haydn is way more complicated. Many musicians told me of turning up to play one piece only to find the venue’s Programme Notes talked about something else. I checked with musicians how they thought pieces were best referred to and that’s what I did. Thus as a result I referred to the last quartet as no 103 not no 68.

It’s impossible to raise the funds for such films and I and my colleagues make them out of a passion for bringing these stories to as wide an audience as possible. It won’t make much economic sense but I’m soon off to the USA, Australia and New Zealand with the Haydn film. I’m up against $100m Hollywood schlock most of the time so it’s tough – and at the end of the day all I can do it my best.

Anyway, your reviewer was in many ways very kind with the many statements of praise and I hope that encourages your erudite readership to see the film for themselves and make their own minds up.

Best wishes, as always….on to Chopin now.

Phil Grabsky
15 January 2012″

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