Friday, March 13, 2009

Haydn's brilliant blandness

I've been on a classical-music kick lately. I was just listening to Haydn's "London" Symphony (No. 104), and longing for the days when the second movement ("Andante") could be considered the height of entertainment.

The first couples minutes of the movement are about as ploddingly bland as you could imagine: slow, major key, regular meter, etc. But the blandness is worth it for the section starting at 2:45, where he incongruously switches the main theme to a minor key as a way to segue into the energizing pay-off.

Then, at 3:20, the energetic section gets abruptly cut off, and there's an awkward pause -- one of Haydn's wonderful trademarks. For the next few seconds, you feel like it's going to go back to the plodding blandness -- but no, it's still energetic for a while. Then, at 3:50-4:00, he transitions back to the slow theme from the beginning of the movement -- a smooth, gentle transition that's the perfect foil to the earlier awkward pause.

At that point, we really are back to the slow, quiet music that we started out with, but -- this is the beauty of classical music -- the original theme takes on a new, richer character now that we've been through the adventure in the middle.

I find it hard to imagine something like this being written today, with this much trust in the listener's attention span. I don't mean by a contemporary "classical" composer (since classical music has stopped having much cultural relevance), but by a popular songwriter. There'd be too much concern about the audience losing interest before the pay-off.