Blog / Helena on the genius of Haydn

Helena on the genius of Haydn

Posted on 20 Jun 2018 by Sarah Price

ACO Principal Violin Helena Rathbone performing

In an excerpt of our Steven Isserlis plays Shostakovich Concert Program, Sarah Price speaks with Principal Violin Helena Rathbone about the genius of Haydn’s ‘London Symphony’.

Haydn is an artist so great that somebody stole his brain.

Reportedly, the grave robbers were phrenologists. They found “the bump of music” on Haydn’s skull to be “fully developed”. The head took a circuitous route back to Haydn’s body, including being hidden in a straw mattress, and the composer is now buried with two skulls.

Large among Haydn’s genius are his symphonies. Principal Violin Helena Rathbone describes his London symphony as “perfection”. Written in 1795 in London, at a later time in Haydn’s life, the music reflects his happiness. In London, Haydn was appreciated: it was one of the few times in his life he was making decent money, and audiences loved his music.

“This was the culmination of writing 104 symphonies,” Rathbone explains, although there may be more. “Haydn had experimented quite a lot along the way, and I guess this is him saying: ‘Okay, I’m going to put all my energies and ideas over the last 103 that I’ve written and give you this piece.’”

Haydn was the master of his time at creating drama, and this symphony is rich with it. “It probably portrays the tension and anxiety that he was feeling himself, being the conductor and the director of these concerts that he put on with his own music.”

With four very different movements, the symphony ranges in emotion from pure joy and elation, to darker, turbulent moments. The grand fanfare opening sets the scene while the final movement has been claimed to be either a Croatian folk tune, or a London street cry to the tune “Hot cross buns”.

“Playing a Haydn symphony is always a journey. It is both a musical and an emotional one.” A performer’s job, Rathbone says, is to take the audience on that emotional journey with you. “It is like we are a conduit between the composer and the audience.”

It was a friend of Haydn’s who stole his skull, a personal secretary to the Prince of Austria, in concert with the manager of a Viennese prison. It took 145 years for the skull to be returned to the composer’s body.

“He really was an absolute genius, a forward thinker,” Rathbone says. “It is such imaginative music. He invented a lot of different sound-colours that had never been heard before. He came up with new ideas and instrumentations.”

This piece is an excerpt from our Steven Isserlis plays Shostakovich Concert Program. The full program can be found on the event page, or is available free of charge at all venues on concert day.

Helena will perform Haydn’s ‘London’ symphony with the Orchestra during our tour. Full details on the program and tickets available via the link below.

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