My Pop Life #134 : ‘The Emporer’ – Haydn

String Quartet #62 in C op 76 ‘The Emporer’  –   Joseph Haydn

I reckon Haydn is a bit under-rated.  You never hear much about Haydn do you?  Not like you hear about Mozart or Beethoven, his contemporaries and friends.  Or Schubert, Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky.  Bach.  Elgar, Prokofiev and Ravel.  Haydn is like – well I was going to say obscure but that would be absurd.   He feels less celebrated.   Probably my hallucination.  He wrote 106 symphonies, yes that is correct, 106  symphonies between 1759 and 1795 which works out to about 3 per year : one of his nicknames is “the father of the symphony“.   He also wrote 68 string quartets over this period, giving him a 2nd nickname “the father of the string quartet“.   The mother of these things is not revealed.   His work tends towards the optimistic and positive, and the pieces develop their themes quickly : his symphonies are short (each movement between 4 and 9 minutes) and easy to listen to.   Largely written for royalty and for dancing, he was in many ways the pop lord of his day.

Pop Lord Haydn c 1770

He was tremendously popular in England and lived in London on two separate and happy occasions between 1791-95 while still working on the continent, sometimes with a certain Ludwig Van Beethoven as his pupil.   Towards the end of his prolific life he sat down and composed three longer and more serious works – all oratorios, called The Creation, The Seasons and The Seven Last Words Of Christ.  These influenced Beethoven to levels of genius.

I love Haydn.  They are works that make you feel happy.  There is a level of complexity in the music that your brain can grasp immediately.  Very pleasing.   They are also “Tunes”, as my friend Luke Cresswell once described a Bach piece.   I think the first Haydn CD I bought was on the Naxos label and had the 85th, the 92nd and the 103rd Symphonies on there.   I had no idea what I was buying, but that’s often how I buy music, as a kind of lucky dip.  It was around 1996, I’d just moved to Brighton, and perhaps I’d just finished A Respectable Trade which was set in Haydn’s era and had come across the name there.   I wrote a little about that TV show, which was about British slavery and in which I played a doctor opposite my wife who played a slave, in My Pop Life #122.  Life is long indeed.  I liked my Haydn CD very much and for a while listened to nothing but.

As I recall I quickly went out and bought another one which had the 45th, 94th and 101st Symphonies on it.  I can report that it was also most excellent.   If you are reading this and have never knowingly listened to Josef Haydn then I would advise you first not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount available.  There’s a lot of Billie Holiday out there too, and Duke Ellington.  But just dive in.  It’s refreshing and wonderful stuff.

In September 2005 I was cast in a Hollywood film adaptation of Christopher Paolini‘s book Eragon, written when he was 15 years old.   Dragon with an E.  It starred Ed Speleers as the dragon-tamer, Jeremy Irons, Djimon Hounsou, John Malkovitch, Sienna Guillory and Chris Egan and others and we were all flown out to Budapest in Hungary in early October.    I’d been there before of course, first in 1975 (see My Pop Life #70), then again in 2000 on Last Run, a film with Ornella MutiJurgen Prochnow and Armand Assante.  Once again, Budapest had changed quite a lot.  Mafia types hung around the centre after dark.  There were no more cimbalom players gracing the quaint restaurants. Now in 2005, things seemed a little harsher.  Still the beautiful Blue Danube (copyright Johann Strauss) flowed through the centre.  One of the oldest subway systems in the world.  We were fitted for our costumes and my head was shaved, then we shot for a couple of days at the studio where I met scottish actor Gary Lewis for the first time and an old friend from Benin Djimon Hounsou again.  We had worked together on Spielberg’s film Amistad in 1996 in Newport, Rhode Island, where he’d played the slave leader Cinque and I was a Lieutenant in the US Navy.

Me with Djimon Hounsou in the Budapest studio

Lots of imaginary dragons to act with, one giant one.  Shortly thereafter I am driven for a few hours down the road to a small settlement called Celldömölk in the west of the Hungarian countryside.  This will be where the rest of the film is shot, in an amazing extinct volcanic crater.

The design of the set in this green calderon is stunning.  I am playing bald twins, one of whom is evil.  It is quite good fun.  But I have made no close buddy here, and on days off I have to amuse myself.  I decide to hire a car and drive around.  They don’t let me, but give me a driver and a car instead.  One day we drive north to Sopron a beautiful town near the Austrian/Slovakian border.  Indeed it is only a few miles from both Vienna and Bratislava.

Sopron, western Hungary

My driver and I took lunch together and drove into the countryside toward the huge lake.  We spotted a sign for Esterháza and something clicked in my mind.  We went to find it.  It was a beautiful clear autumn day, blue sky, warm.

Esterháza, Hungary

There it was, a stunning golden palace set in formal gardens.  We walked around the grounds, went inside and found a little information.  Yes, this was the home of the Austro-Hungarian, (formerly Habsburg) Esterházy family, principal patrons of Josef Haydn who was their Kapellmeister from 1761 until his death.  He was permitted to travel to England for the 1790s when Prince Anton’s reign did without the service of musicians, trying to save money.  But this was where he worked and lived and produced all of his key works, almost in total isolation from the rest of Europe and the other composers.  It was a good find.

After his reportedly joyous time in London and Oxford where Haydn was feted and adored, he returned to Esterháza and composed his final works including the late String Quartets and the hymn Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser which was inspired by the British national anthem God Save The King – an anonymously composed tune which is frankly a dirge.  Nevertheless Haydn wanted Austria/Hungary (as it was then) to have its own patriotic anthem so he composed it as a birthday gift for the Emporer Francis II.   It premiered in 1797 and also appeared in String Quartet #62 – the 2nd Movement, ever since known as ‘The Emporer’.    It will be immediately apparent to listeners that the entirely memorable and beautiful tune lives on to this day as the Deutschlandlied or the German national anthem.   Haydn didn’t write the words but I’ll note in passing that “Deutchsland Deutschsland über alles“, the opening line, is often misrepresented as a nazi slogan when it actually refers to national unity.  Germany didn’t exist in 1797 and the small states and principalities the lyrics appealed to were only unified in 1871.   

I was brought up hating Germans.  My parents were evacuated during World War Two and Paul and I played on bomb debris sites in Portsmouth in the early 60s.  As a child playing bang bang war games ‘The Germans’ were always the enemy.  Six months after completing Eragon I was on my way to Germany with my wife Jenny in a Citroen draped in the St George’s Cross.  Oh the clashing ironies.  I believe St George was Macedonian.  Popular in Bulgaria too.  Haha.  Nationalism is of course the last refuge of a scoundrel, but football will do that.   I’m not a fan of National Anthems either but some of them are just great tunes, just like some flags are great designs….

The 2006 World Cup that summer was one of the best we have been to – brilliantly organised yes, but also charming, funny, gentle, relaxed, modern and fun.  Germany had left the past behind long before the rest of us.

Shortly after our drive from Hamburg to Nürnberg, Bad Kreuznach to Dortmund I received a phone call from Hollywood from the producer of Eragon.  “I’m sorry Ralph” he said, “But we’ve cut the Twins from the film, they came in too late for any more new characters and we needed to get to the fighting.  Nothing personal – you were great, and thanks, but apologies”.

“Thanks for letting me know,”  I said.  “You didn’t have to do that”.

When the film was released in December 2006 it was one of the worst-reviewed films of that year.  I wasn’t in it at all.

I still got paid, and I still get royalties.

Mozart and Beethoven both loved Josef Haydn.

So do I.

*

the performance below is by The Lindsay Quartet who tend to be the people we look for when purchasing string quartets, particularly by Haydn or Beethoven.   This is the 2nd movement only – seek out the rest.

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My Pop Life #70 : Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love) – The Stylistics

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Can’t Give You Anything (But My Love)   –   The Stylistics

…If I had money I’d go wild buy you furs dress you like a queen
And in a chauffered limousine
We’d look so fine.
But I’m an ordinary guy and my pockets are empty
Just an ordinary guy
But I’m yours till I die…

In July 1975 I hitch-hiked to Hungary with my friend Martin Cooper.  In our last year at Lewes Priory he’d been Head Boy, and I’d been Deputy Head Boy, voted by the students of the sixth form.  This really only meant that every now and then we had a meeting with the headmistress about things that have entirely slipped my memory, but probably involved social events and smoking in the toilets.  An honorary title really, but there was a channel open at least.  Martin was a carrot-topped football fanatic and we would often go to the Goldstone Ground together to see Brighton & Hove Albion playing in League Division 3 against the likes of Preston North End, Gillingham and Aldershot.  We’d finished 19th that season.  Coops was also captain of the school football team, being the son of a vicar and a sensible sort of chap, head boy and all that.  We played on Saturday mornings – Coop was in midfield and I played centre forward in that last season at school.  I did about three good things over the course of the season in my recall.   I may be placing this event in the wrong year – but for some reason – perhaps because his reasonableness was in fact a curse – Martin Cooper put his foot through a train window one day and severed his achilles tendon.  To say we were all shocked is an understatement.  Completely out of character and rather more violent than anyone else in the school would have managed, even under stress.  He spent a few months hobbling around in plaster poor chap, and John Trower, star of the javelin,  took on the captain’s mantle, and the sexiest girl in the school Sarah-Jane.

I’d got a job at Sussex University for a few weeks and stayed at Waterlilies in Kingston at Rosemary Ryle‘s insistence, despite her daughter Miriam having finished with me.   I had my own room (see My Pop Life #47).    I think Rough Justice, the band I played in with Conrad Ryle and Tat and Andy Shand played one last gig at school but were somewhat upstaged by a new band from the lower 6th who covered Jo Jo Gunne’s Run Run Run rather impressively.

And as The Stylistics started to climb the charts with this magnificent single, Coops and I started our thumbs-only journey through Europe.   The first part was easy – ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe.   We had a two-man tent and erected it somewhere or other that night.  I cannot really remember the French section of the journey, but we got to Grenoble on day three amidst stunning Alpine pastures.  Thence through the Great St Bernard Tunnel to Italy and the Aosta Valley, then right across North Italy.  We ended up in a small car with a funny old bloke who only said one word to us : “Udine“.  Ooh-Dinn-Ay.  We checked on the map and there it was just north of Trieste.  After a frankly bizarre lift where the little man kept saying Udine every five minutes we got out and pitched the tent on the Trieste road.  Next day we got as far as Ljubljana in western Yugoslavia which felt pretty foreign, (very pretty, very foreign), and so we stayed a couple of days in the Youth Hostel.   Nice place.  Next up was Zagreb which we skimmed and then headed north for the Hungarian border which we reached at about 6pm.  There was a little cafe just before the border post, so we went in and had some food.

The locals were aghast.  We were going to Hungary ?  Alarmed looks all round, heads shaking, pitying glances !  They insisted on buying us a farewell drink each – our last taste of freedom I believe it was called, except that it wasn’t our last – there were about three more.  Each.  As dusk fell we staggered under the sudden weight of our rucksacks and with the waves of our new comrades ringing in our ears, walked in a drunken manner to the border post, showed our visas and stepped over the Iron Curtain.

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Now what?  We knew there was a campsite about ten miles up the road.  How we knew this I have absolutely no idea but pre-internet it actually was possible to discover things you didn’t know.   We stood there and hitched as cars drove past us, then started walking as the light faded.  Before ten minutes had passed a huge army truck stopped just in front of us, full of soldiers.  The Hungarian Red Army.  Now bloody what.  We’d been intrepid to plan the trip and then we’d actually got there, had no idea what to expect.  Hungarian words v English words.  Soldiers.  Sixth formers.  There was only one word that all of us, me Coops and the soldiers all knew.  “Camping”.   Nods.  They gave us seats in the back of the truck with them and drove us to the campsite.  I think we managed to share the simple fact that we were English, on holiday, but I’m not sure they understood the holiday bit.   When we pulled into the darkened campsite, they took our rucksacks from us, unpacked the tent and proceeded with military efficiency to erect it there and then, shook our hands and jumped back in the truck, headlights disappearing into the night.  We looked at our little tent and thought: “Bloody communists“.

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No of course we didn’t.   We thought “Welcome to Communist Eastern Europe”   The next day, with a Yugoslav liquor hangover, we hitched to Lake Balaton and met some East German girls in the youth hostel.   Detente.  Stayed a few days in that beautiful part of Europe, and thence to Budapest where our A-levels results were going to be posted in a few days time.

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We ate in restaurants with live bands playing Hungarian folk music, using an instrument I’d never seen before called a cymbalom which is like a stringed vibraphone-type thing, or perhaps a piano on it’s side played with padded sticks;  alongside violins, cellos, bagpipes.  Then a huge display on weaponry along the Danube one day, with red flags alongside every Hungarian red white & green flag – gunboats, a flotilla bristling with armaments.   A local told us that the red flag was Russian.   Our A-level results were collected on time the next day, poste restante Budapest – we both got what we wanted, which means I got an A in Geography and two Bs in English and Economics.  I’d be going to LSE in a year’s time, after taking a break from education for a while.   A few days later we took the train to Vienna and separated, I was heading for La Chaux De Fonds in Switzerland, which is another tale, and Martin was going to Germany.   When I eventually got “home” which was nowhere really, but anywhere in East Sussex in actual fact, The Stylistics were number 1.

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The Stylistics were one of my favourite bands in those days – long before I decided that I liked soul music, they just had a string of amazing singles between 1972 and 1975.  The voice of Russell Thompkins Jr is a thing of great sweetness joy and beauty and twice now I’ve had tickets for a live show and been unable to make it on the night.  Such are the vagaries of self-employment.  They are a Philly soul band, a symphonic soul band, initially under the wing of Thom Bell at Avco Records who produced all of their hits up to 1974, when Van McCoy took the reigns and gave his signature sound to Can’t Give You Anything.  The opening trumpet glissando and melody with that twinkling piano arpeggio behind it is breathtaking every time I hear it.   And the voice!   The Stylistics are still playing together, still performing.  Catch them when you can, these old soul guys really know how to put on a show.  But be warned – Russell Thompkins Jr. is singing with The New Stylistics which he formed in 2004.

Meanwhile, Hungary is now in the EU and not such an exotic destination as it was in 1975.  It was always a more independent country than a lot of the Eastern Bloc, but now it has swung violently to the right, has a popular fascist party (Jobbik), and anti-Roma feeling is running high.   There’s also a strong organised crime element to Budapest, as there is with Sofia and to a lesser extent Bucharest, all places where I’ve worked on films.  The border where we crossed is now open all day.   And  Ljubljana is now the capital of new country (old country) Slovenia since the break-up of Yugoslavia, and Zagreb the capital of Croatia.  Am I mourning the old communist bloc then ?  Well what do I know ?  Hungary 1975 was very warm and friendly.  You have to watch yourself these days.

I think Martin Cooper and I saw each other once, maybe twice more after that.  Ever.  Martin got married and I wrote to him (at Durham University) or maybe he settled in the North-East, anyway I got his wife’s name wrong, called her Bridget, his sister’s name, he got annoyed and we haven’t spoken since.    Such are the chapters of life.   We come together, we separate. Now read on dot dot dot…

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