If I offered you a million dollars but you had to swear off chocolate for the rest of your life, would you take it?
Seems like a silly question. I've never heard of anyone offering a million dollars to someone randomly if they will forswear chocolate or coffee or whatever makes it difficult.
But suppose you are a great composer and I tell you I have a really nice gig for you. It involves steady employment for life, living in a castle, employed by a prince, with your own orchestra, and you get to give a hundred concerts a year of your own music for the entertainment of a cultured monarch. Those are your only duties, beside occasional travel between castles when the prince wants to go fox hunting.
Or suppose I said you could spend your days writing harpsichord sonatas and your only duty would be to give lessons to the queen of Spain. Same living accommodations as before, and only the best harpsichords at your disposal. Would you be interested? But you can't leave. And it's not on the beaten path. Might get a bit lonely.
These are the sorts of deals that Joseph Haydn and Domenico Scarlatti seem to have made with life. They were on yesterday's program for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute course I'm offering on Composers In Exile. Only Scarlatti was in truly foreign territory: born in Italy, he worked for the Spanish court, part of that great influx of Italian musicians to nearly every court in Europe. Both of them seemed to lead isolated lives. Haydn, in particular, spent his days in a castle pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the summer home of the prince was even more nowhere than that. He built it on a swamp, no less.
Haydn appears to have been rather lonely. He poured out his feelings in several letters, this one from February of 1790:
Well, here I sit in my wilderness; forsaken, like some poor orphan, almost without human society, melancholy, dwelling on the memory of past glorious days. Yes, past, alas! And who can tell when those happy hours may return.
Sounds rather unhappy about it, doesn't he? And the music I chose to play, although plenty jovial much of the time, does take some rather dark turns, and is just as introspective and melancholy is it is ebullient. In fact, both composers inhabit much deeper emotional worlds than they are often given credit for.
This touches on the issue of a composer's development. While most composers live in large cities, hearing and being influenced by the work of their colleagues, studying the work of their illustrious predecessors, and so on, these gentlemen seem to have been largely unable to do that. Occasionally a gifted instrumentalist might visit Eszterhaza castle, and no doubt Scarlatti got to work with some fresh blood too once in a while, but physical isolation can lead to stunted growth in other areas, too. Haydn spun this turn of events positively, however, and said that he was "forced to become original."
Scarlatti, too, was a restless experimenter who wrote 555 keyboard sonatas which follow largely the same architectural plan, and yet explore new territory each time.
Which brings to mind a quotation from the poet Maria Rainer Rilke which a teacher of mine had posted on her door at Peabody. It is from a collection called "letters to a young poet" in which the man answered a letter from an admirer asking for criticism of his poetry.
"Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which like all progress must come from deep within you and cannot be forced or hastened by anything. The whole thing is to carry the full time and then give birth; to let every impression and every germ of a feeling consummate itself entirely within itself, in that which is dark, inexpressible, unconscious and unattainable by your own intelligence, and to await the hour of the delivery of a new clearness of vision. That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating.
In that there is no measuring with time; no year is of any value and ten years are as nothing. To be an artist is this: not to count or to reckon: to ripen like a tree which does not force its sap, but in the storms of spring stands confident without being afraid that afterwards no summer may come. The summer comes all right. But it only comes to the patient, to those who are there as carefree and quiet and immense, as if eternity lay before them. Daily I learn, learn it through my sufferings [to which I am grateful] that patience is everything."
Had Haydn died at 35 as Mozart did, we probably wouldn't remember him. Scarlatti also had a long life, living to be nearly 72 (Haydn was 77). For the time those were pretty long lives. And with Scarlatti it is hard to know just how he developed because the chronology of his works is in doubt. But with Haydn you can see the music becoming richer with age, even with melancholy.
It may be difficult to imagine pain and suffering and patience being major ingredients in the furnace of art, but for these two that seems to have been of vital importance. Out of the isolation, out of the daily application and service to their art, something wonderful happened.
And we are the beneficiaries.
Scary organ music is up for a few more days at www.pianonoise.com, as are more articles about Scarlatti and Haydn, and of course it's All Saints Day.