Haydn vs. Mozart

A guide for listeners who can’t tell the composers apart.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

When I studied composition with the late Leonard Stein, one of my regular assignments was to compose minuets for string quartet “in the style of Mozart and Haydn.” It was no accident that Stein employed the singular form of the word “style.” The two composers share a common musical idiom; there are many reasons why inexperienced listeners find it hard to tell them apart.

Haydn and Mozart were both Austrians who spent much of their professional lives in Vienna. A generation separated them, but Mozart’s 35 years were entirely contained within Haydn’s 77. And there were family connections: Michael Haydn, Joseph’s younger brother, also a musician, lived and worked in Salzburg, where Mozart was born and grew up. He was a friend of the Mozart family. (Mozart’s duos for two violins were originally ghostwritten as a favor for Michael, struggling with alcoholism and unable to complete a commission.)

The two great composers were certainly aware of each other for many years before they met. In addition to his younger brother’s firsthand reports, Haydn would have read published accounts of Mozart’s exploits as a child prodigy. And by the time Mozart came to maturity, Haydn was already the most celebrated composer in Europe; knowledge of his influential scores was de rigueur for any serious contemporary musician.

Later, they were members of the same Masonic lodge in Vienna, and became personal friends as well as mutual admirers. This last is noteworthy, especially with respect to Mozart, who was often scathing about colleagues. When he spoke of Haydn, however, it was with reverence. His six great string quartets were dedicated as a set to the older composer, partly as acknowledgment of how much he had learned from Haydn’s own essays in the form. Haydn’s later quartets are said to have been influenced in turn by the quartets Mozart wrote under his influence. After Mozart’s death, the older composer even seems to have experienced something akin to survivor’s guilt; he declined a request to write string quintets and refused permission for his early operas to be performed, on the grounds that Mozart’s work in these genres was supreme.

Franz Joseph Haydn

So, considering their closeness in time and space, their friendship, and their acknowledged mutual influence, it’s not surprising that their music, to the casual ear, sounds similar. Nevertheless, on close listening, their individual voices, their personalities and temperaments, emerge as very different. After only a few measures, an experienced listener usually knows which of the two is being performed.

One difference derives from what might be considered social class. Haydn was a countryman, son of a wheelwright, his family still part of the peasantry (for this very reason—or rather, for its democratic implications—Beethoven treasured a painting of the little hut in which Haydn was born); whereas Mozart was a townsman, his father was university-educated (trained as a lawyer, in fact, although he chose music as a profession) and the author of a best-selling book (on the art of violin playing). Salzburg was a provincial town, but the Mozarts were sophisticated and well-traveled provincials.

The era privileged elegance and wit in its music above almost all other qualities, and Haydn, despite his rustic origins, was hardly lacking in either. But there are various ways of being elegant and witty. Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain both incontestably possessed elegant and witty minds, but no one would mistake either one for his near-contemporary. With that sort of distinction in mind, let’s consider two symphonic minuet movements, one by Haydn, one by Mozart. First, from Haydn’s 92nd symphony. And from Mozart’s 36th symphony. The minuet is a courtly, aristocratic dance, and both composers are faithful to its nature. But Haydn’s example is nevertheless rougher, heartier, earthier, like one of those Jane Austen men who are at ease in a London sitting room but back in Hampshire have mud on their boots. Mozart usually keeps his surfaces smoother than Haydn, achieving a more polished suavity.

You can hear, I believe, a comparable difference in the following two string quartet openings: Haydn is sturdy, jaunty, and clearly delighted to begin a string quartet with such a rattling good tune. Mozart’s work has a decidedly finer grain, possessing supernal grace along with a certain emotional reticence. This quartet, incidentally, was a favorite of Beethoven, who as a young man copied out the entire piece by hand in order to master its intricacies.

The music of both composers is shot through with wit, but here too they differ. Haydn is not merely witty, he is funny, a prankster reveling in outright jokes. Take this, perhaps the most famous joke in all of music, from the second movement of his 94th symphony. It’s almost slapstick: He lulls us into a trance; then, when we least expect it, he bashes us over the head. And here is a lesser-known example, a delightful quartet finale. Its opening notes sound just like an ending, a passage of apparently clinching finality, after which we are introduced to a little snippet of tune that seems stuck in its own narrow groove, unable to get anywhere. All of this is then repeated almost verbatim in another key, and then, within another bar or two, we suddenly realize that somehow, despite (or as a result of)all this nonactivity, we’re actually off and running. These are high jinks of the very highest order.

Mozart is certainly capable of broad burlesque—his comic operas contain many examples—and he even wrote a piece chock-full of jokes both elevated and silly, unambiguously titled A Musical Joke (Ein Musikalischer Spass). But in general, his wit is of a different order, a quicksilver play of ideas, intellectual juggling of dazzling speed and deftness, more likely to make the listener smile in wonderment than laugh out loud. Take as a single example this easily overlooked little passage from the rondo of the 23rd piano concerto; it is, in its essence, nothing more than a functional bit of connective tissue taking us from one place to another within the movement’s structure. Ten brief bars—about 10 seconds—of basic scalar material, doing its job efficiently and economically. But it is at the same time so richly and amusingly characterized, so full of piping energy, with its determined but struggling piano line climbing its stutteringly inexorable way up to the note E, punctuated along its course by deadpan commentary from the winds, sneaking in the D natural that signals the change of key with almost undetectable sleight of hand—the passage almost constitutes a miniature comic universe all by itself.

The final difference I’d like to discuss is the most difficult to demonstrate, but may ultimately be the most telling. Haydn is a great artist, and like most great artists, his emotional range is broad. But he is also the sanest and most balanced of composers, and his intentions are always clear, his procedures, regardless of how playful or original or ingenious, always limpid. Even this portrayal of Chaos, from the overture to The Creation, seems orderly. When his work expresses jollity, it’s damned jolly; when it reflects anguish or perturbation (emotions much more characteristic of his early music than his later), it leaves you in no doubt about its distress.

Mozart is different, and to music lovers, the adjective Mozartian, while always suggestive of exquisite grace, also connotes an umbral, aural world where emotions shimmer with ambiguity and confront their own opposites. Listen to the slow introduction to the first movement of the D major string quintet. Is that opening cello arpeggio an assertion, or a question? Does the response of the four other strings offer consolation, or despair? Is the cello listening to the answer, or is it oblivious? Impossible to be sure. And listen to another slow introduction, the extraordinary opening of one of Mozart’s other quartets dedicated to Haydn. What in the name of God is going on there? What are we to make of the painful, unresolved dissonances, the false relations and harmonic slide-slipping? Many early purchasers of this music believed it to be replete with printers’ errors and returned it to the publisher for a refund. (When Haydn was asked what he thought of the passage, some years after Mozart’s death, he said something along the line of, “If Mozart did it, it must be right.”) And from a passage toward the end of the middle movement of the piano concerto whose rondo we discussed earlier, listen to these eerie few bars . Am I alone in hearing, amidst the prevailing ghostly disquiet, the spectral weirdness, a hint of derision, even disrespectful mirth, in the dialogue between the piano left hand and bassoon? And consider this evocation of rampant adolescent horniness from The Marriage of Figaro. Ardor, agitation, heedlessness, exhilaration, confusion, raging hormones: It’s all there, and in an irresistible melody of melting beauty. I don’t know of another composer who could manage all that, let alone manage it with such apparent effortlessness.

So, does all this imply Mozart was in some way a better composer than Haydn? I have two contradictory responses to that question. The first is: No, at altitudes as stratospheric as this, there is no such thing as better, there are only different ways of being great. The second answer, which I can’t really defend, but which I suspect I share with a majority of music lovers, is: Yes, of course. Mozart stands alone.

But the answer may partly depend on what one is looking for. Some years ago, I was discussing music with two friends, one of them a distinguished contemporary composer. We were chewing over the following peculiar question, peculiar especially since it concerned an experience none of us had had in approximately three decades: If you had taken LSD and suddenly realized your trip was heading seriously south, what music would you put on the stereo to restore your emotional equilibrium and silence your demons? All three of us agreed without hesitation: a Haydn quartet. Almost any Haydn quartet.