VIFF 2012: In Search of Haydn

The third of director Phil Grabsky’s biographical documentaries of famous composers is about as good a film about Joseph Haydn as you’re likely to see.  Unlike the subjects of his first two films in the series, Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn doesn’t have a particularly interesting biography, nor does his music have as ubiquitous a presence in modern life. In fact, his life can be downright dull at times: he seems like a basically decent guy, though not exceptionally so, who was well-employed for most of his life and achieved great success and renown for his work.  Basically the opposite of our ideal tortured artist.  Musically, he appears to be more respected by professionals than loved by the general populace; his name is probably more famous than any of his tunes.

The great strength of Grabsky’s Beethoven film (I haven’t seen the Mozart film yet) was its emphasis as much on the music as on the biography: he has a knack for getting inside the music and showing what is really unique, interesting and powerful about it.  To that end, Haydn presents a bit of a dilemma in that he just wrote so much music: over 100 symphonies and string quartets each, along with operas and keyboard music and more.  Trying to cover it all in the film’s less than two hour running time is next to impossible.  Still, Grabsky does get some fine commenters (Emmanuel Ax and Marc-Andre Hamelin in particular) to explain in lay terms just how experimental and unusual Haydn was, and why he was to be such a huge influence on every composer that followed him, Mozart and Beethoven first among them.

Words and phrases used in the film to describe Haydn’s music: sparkle, spirit, burst of life, surprise, humor, overt, modest, entertaining, great intelligence and seriousness, eloquent, rhetorical, inspirational, spirit, spiritual, exploring, pleasant, music for everybody, democratic, repetitive with long long phrases, not very difficult – but difficult to make beautiful.

The best parts of the movie are the performances.  Not just for the music itself (by the Orchestra of the 18th Century and the Endillion String Quartet, among others) but for the way the film captures them.  There are the standard, Great Performances-style long shots, of course, but Grabsky also frequently intercuts extreme close-ups of the musicians at work: say, the fingerboard of a cello or the strings of a violin.  The performance is broken down to its most basic elements, made physical and tactile.  Music can be so ephemeral, so abstract that grounding it in this way reminds us of its tangible reality, that it is created and performed by people on instruments.  To often music, classical music in particular, is treated as if it were an emanation from on high, divinely inspired by “genius” as a gift to all humanity.  Grabsky’s project is to fight that rarefying impulse, to root the music in the people who wrote it and, just as importantly, in the people who perform it.

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