After some considerable success searching for and finding first Mozart and then Beethoven, documentarian Phil Grabsky has turned his attention to Joseph Hayden. His latest, In Search of Hayden, is now out on DVD. While perhaps not held in quite the esteem of his first two subjects by the public today, the reverence in which ‘Papa’ Hayden was held by his contemporaries, including Messers Mozart and Beethoven, is legendary. In some sense, Grabsky’s film tries to bring renewed appreciation to a truly great composer who may be in danger of falling into neglect. It looks at his life. It looks at his music. It explains with detail and example exactly where his greatness lies.
Born in Austria in 1732 to the family of a wheelwright, the young boy was recruited for the choir at St. Stephens Cathedral in Vienna at age eight. He left nine years later when his voice changed or he got into some trouble over a juvenile prank, or both, and became a kind of free lance musician and teacher. Composing and cultivating the patronage of music loving aristocrats, he eventually worked his way up to a position as Vice-Kappelmeister and later full-fledged music director to the wealthy Esterhazey family.
His tenure with the family lasted into the last decade of the 18th century when he was given leave to travel to London where he was publically lionized. On his return to Vienna, he agreed to resume his duties with the Esterhazeys on a part-time basis. He returned to London for another successful visit in 1794. He spent his last years in Vienna continuing to add to his prolific oeuvre and honored by his compatriots. He died in 1809.
The key to Grabsky’s documentary approach developed in In Search of Mozart and In Search of Beethoven is to focus on the music, and with Joseph Hayden there is no shortage of music. The man was a veritable dynamo: 108 symphonies, 83 string quartets, 166 trios for various instruments, 11 piano concertos, 13 operas and on and on. If you want to film a lot of excellent music and you want an abundance to choose from, it would be hard to find a gold mine richer than Hayden.
Grabsky is interested in biography, but he is well aware, as he indicates in a lengthy interview included as a bonus on the DVD, that it is the music that is the really important thing. The strength of In Search of Hayden is the music. Grabsky fills the screen with Hayden’s music performed by some of the world’s great artists, and he is never afraid to spend the time necessary to allow the viewer to hear extended portions of those performances. Artists explain the significance of a piece and then illustrate it at length.
Hayden’s music is front and center, and that’s a good thing, because it is the music that is the best thing in the film. A partial list of performers includes The Endellion String Quartet, The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, Ronald Brautigam, Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques, Emanuel Ax, Alison Balsom and Sophie Bevan. Grabsky is partial to close ups of the performers getting fine shots of their fingering and bowing and giving a real feel for their virtuosity. They of course are bolstered by the typical talking heads, but there are some good anecdotes and little pompous pontificating. There is a real interest in making the man and his music accessible.
Subtitles on the DVD are available in a number of different language. Bonus features include the Grabsky interview, and seven musical movements selected from performances not used in the final cut. Although Grabsky maintains that when he began his Mozart film, he wasn’t thinking about a series, a series, it seems is what he’s got: turns out that In Search of Chopin is on the way. Gives us something to look forward to.