Music Review: Cello Concerto No. 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb:1

by Brian Clinkenbeard

Haydn is a composer who is well-known among music specialists, and certainly not unheard of in the general public; however, in both realms, he is sometimes dismissed as “That guy who wrote a lot of symphonies/string quartets”, or “That guy who wrote a symphony designed to scare people who had fallen asleep during the concert“, or, to paraphrase a Facebook comment I read a while back, “That guy who wrote dime-a-dozen symphonies, which are incomparable, both individually and collectively, to the mystical poetry of a piece like Berg’s Violin Concerto”. Yeesh. Anyway, I think such comments reduce Haydn to nothing but a speedbump in the road towards the upcoming Romantic era, and discredit the quality of his work. While many of Haydn’s works, particularly in his early and middle years, were fired off, one after another, with relative speed and ease, several of his later works, most notably The Creation, are not the last breaths of an outdated musical style, but rather a prophetic vision of the upcoming tide of Romanticism. However, the piece we’re looking at today is not one of these prophetic visions, but rather a piece from Haydn’s (relative) youth.

Written in the early 1760s, Haydn (then in his late 20s or early 30s) was relatively new to composition, having written one fairly reserved Mass setting (Hob. XXII:1), one or two keyboard sonatas, and about a dozen symphonies (which, mind you, were much less ambitious affairs at the time than the titanic works of Beethoven, Brahms, and other later symphonists; see Mozart’s first symphony clocking in at about 10 minutes, compared to Beethoven’s 9th reaching or even surpassing a full hour). Hence, he had yet to really develop an individual voice, and therefore was largely subject to influence by his predecessors, which, in the case of concertos, mostly meant the likes of Handel and Vivaldi. This influence is clearly present throughout the concerto, although there are some of Haydn’s own twists and innovations as well.

The first movement opens with a long orchestral introduction, characteristic of concertos from the Baroque and Classical eras; only with Beethoven did concertos occasionally start with the soloist. The first entrance of the solo cello already shows Haydn’s slight but noticeable departure from his forebears; the cello opens on a quadruple stop, a chord involving all four strings. This sort of technique, somewhat advanced but definitely not unheard of, rarely, if ever, appears in the solo parts of concertos by Handel or Vivaldi, likely because they were playing it safe in writing their solo parts, lest the concerto be published and balked as unplayable. Haydn, however, composed this concerto for a specific cellist, and could therefore be more confident in stretching the cello’s boundaries to their limits. However, the solo writing also speaks to Haydn’s thorough knowledge of the cello; the melodic lines are mostly carried by the top two strings (tuned to D and A), a wise choice, given that, before the widespread use of steel strings, these strings has the best ability to project, and would be the safest bet to carry over and through the orchestra. However, the downside of this is that the lower C and G strings, especially the former, don’t get much love, besides being the bottom members of chords and stops; little to no melodic content appears on these two strings. Again, a sacrifice that is unfortunate, but understandable, given the circumstances. Aside from the above comments, the first movement falls into the group of Classical-era movements that is perfectly serviceable, and aurally pleasing, but lacking a deeper level of complexity and poetry.

While my attention was drawn to the soloist in the first movement, the second made me aware of Haydn’s balance of orchestral accompaniment techniques. Given the aforementioned problems with projection, two pitfalls that the orchestral part could fall into are those of absence, and its opposite, overbearing omnipresence. The former inhibits the soloist’s ability to dialogue with the ensemble, thus risking an uninteresting monologue; the latter is more likely to drown out the soloist than support them. Haydn walks this tightrope by contrasting the cello’s flowing melodies with the orchestra quietly playing offbeats, asserting their presence, while also recognizing the real star of the show. The cello contrasts its own long, lyrical lines with brief but effective runs of quicker notes, giving the movement the surprisingly intimate feel of an orchestrally-accompanied Bach allemande.

The third movement serves as the typical exuberant finale, with a constant pulsing energy that gives it a sense of inexorable drive. Counter-intuitively, however, the solo cello makes its first entrance by sneaking into the texture on a long note, gradually getting louder until it has made its way to the front of the stage, so to speak. While the rest of the concerto hasn’t really featured much in the way of unexpected harmonic moments, there are a handful in this movement. After the cello finishes its solo line, a brief postlude brings the concerto to a close.

If I had to summarize this piece in one word, I would probably say: competent. Haydn clearly knows how to write in the style of his predecessors, but has yet to develop his own personal voice. He knows the solo instrument well, well enough to know that highly experimental writing would likely come off as confused and messy, so he sticks with what he knows will work. He has yet to experiment with the advanced harmony one might find in the likes of The Creation or the later symphonies, but also knows what works and stick with it. As previously stated, there are some experiments in rhythm, harmony, and cello technique, but clearly Haydn’s goal is not to revolutionize the world of concertos and/or cello writing; rather, as the employee of a prince, he was creating a piece of light entertainment for his employer to enjoy on a lazy afternoon when he had an empty appointment book. The piece is unambitious, but consequently has a humility and modesty to it that makes it enjoyable to listen to, even if it doesn’t stick in the mind for very long.

Favorite movement: Probably the second. The more reserved accompaniment allows the cello to delve into more subtlety than would be advisable in the outer movements, while also being an accomplishment on its own; not interesting to the point of distraction, but containing some lessons about good accompaniment practices.