A 1793 Haydn Recording

What can we learn?

 ‘This is what people liked in those days, to have it in a tempo that was not really playable, couldn’t be played by humans, that is what they liked mechanical music to do’

Joost Oehler, Speelklok Museum

Wished you could step into a Time Machine? Which composer would you choose?

So if you’re reading this text (or watching the twin video on YouTube), chances are rather high that stepping into a time machine and fly back in time to Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or … Haydn, is high on your fantasy wish list. If you are a bit like me, you might have spent some time in your live just dreaming on the hypothetical situation that if you had one chance to go back to just one composer, who would it be. It’s a mind game without solution but fun to do, and to be completely honest with you here, I for long have decided that if tomorrow a fairy would appear, I would skip my personal preferences, and fly back to half November 1791, with a strip of antibiotics to give to Mozart. Not that hearing Mozart play is high on my wish list, but extending his life instead is something I would happily give up my personal desires in favor for humanity. O yes, I would feel guilty of not having done the same to Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn, … but one has to make choices in life, right.

Sometimes the opposite is possible

Sending you back in time is something I cannot do. But bringing something from the past to our present day is something that sure is possible. And so, let’s talk a bit on that recording made by Jozef Haydn. Of course it is not a vinyl disc, nor a CD or MP3, but a clock work.

The Haydn Niemecz mechanical organ of Esterhazy

To be more specific, a clock work built in 1793 by a certain Primitivus Niemecz, librarian for the monarch Nicolaus Esterhazy, in assignment obviously for the monarch. And why not have music of Haydn on it, when one of the most famous composers of the time is working for you? So they did. The story even goes that Haydn himself was present when this clock played for the first time. That of course we’ll never know, but it would be very surprising up to weird to think Haydn would have miles away from the presentation of this beautiful work of art that had his music on.

Are we listening to Haydn when we listen to this machine?

I will share some excerpts of this video that was uploaded by Wintergatan, a really intriguing channel owned by musician Martin Molin, dedicated now to the building of a gigantic marble machine, where the marbles will make music. It is thus no surprise to find Martin here in one of the biggest and most known musea for automatic music machines, situated in Utrecht, The Netherlands.

So I share a first excerpt here where the 1793 Niemecz clock plays it’s Haydn tune and then I’ll share some thoughts on this. You will recognize the menuet from Haydn’s symphony 101, the ‘clock symphony

So again, have we heard a rare slice of preserved history? Did we just listen to Haydn as if he played for us in real life? It is what often is said: that these machines were an except representation of the music as it was intended. Also in this interview that perspective is shared:

Was Haydn really that bad as a player…?

Regardless of all aspects, I’m always surprised to hear people say that these machines reproduced the exact wishes of the composers involved. Or stronger, as here, a machine that plays live for us as if Haydn himself played.

I’m surprised, since, if Haydn really played like this, I believe we wouldn’t be too impressed… the organ pipes have no time to sound, the articulation is… well, let’s say rather irregular. Trills are taken out of any rhythmical proportion. And so on.  I personally believe (but I wasn’t there) that a man’s playing who worked at this high level, played his whole live clavichord (so he must have had a decent touch), was world famous, produced some nicer results when sitting at a keyboard.

…or should we be careful of allowing our fascination to be in front of our judgment?

Of course, it’s a machine. But as often, our fascination for these jewelry boxes despise us a bit from being critical, which would only require to take a slightly different perspective sometimes. Looking at things from a different perspective almost always will help to recreate a certain context. Just asking if you would be impressed when this was Haydn really playing.

Then the answer would be no.

Important to state I believe. And a statement that can be made with the same fully amazement for the machine itself.

Tempo you say???

So what about the basis of the performance, being the movement and at a lower level: the tempo. You know: for me, tempo on its own means nothing, but it is the only measurable element of the movement, which is the basic under every performance, something that determines all aspects of the performance itself. So that is important.

I am far from a specialist here, this is just about sharing some thoughts around this fascinating machine and what it can tell us about performance practices of the time. But often these machines will produce their music in a very fast way. Some musicologists (certainly those that never play themselves) take these machines as to ‘proof’ that indeed at those days, people played blasting fast, at warp speeds, and if we cannot do that anymore today, it is because we simply don’t practice enough. If you think I’m not being serious here, you might be surprise on some arguments, even by published authors.

I will not go into detail on the Haydn menuet itself, that might be a topic for another post (it is interesting though), but focus on one particular, most interesting passage here in the interview I borrowed from Wintergatan. It is extremely interesting in fact, not only because of the content of that sentence, expressed by one of the most knowledgeable people in automatic clocks, turning the perspective we have towards these machines completely 180° around. But it says also about how easy we fall into the trap of continuing saying what is being said all the time.

Remember what was said here on the fact that this machine gave an accurate version of Haydn, and that, despite the tempo being questioned, it was not possible to have it play at a slower pace.

But the restorer of the machine actually did say something else as well. Something important, let’s listen:

So these music machines were NOT meant to copy human performances?

 ‘This is what people liked in those days, to have it in a tempo that was not really playable, couldn’t be played by humans, that is what they liked mechanical music to do’

This sentence, stated here not as a suggestion, but as a contextual truth, completely contradicts the first assumption that a machine like this represents exactly the wishes of the composer. only this one sentence gives a completely new perspective.

So these machines were not at all 18th century cd players. They were made to astonish people, by their technique, and… by their performances, playing in a way they could NOT. As we today would have hard time to play many of the preserved clock tunes. It just makes so much sense.

THE lesson to learn: always ‘think’ perspective

So to close this post, this is a lesson of reconstructing the context all the time, over and over again. I’m not saying the last word on automatic music clocks has been said with this video, I just want to open perspectives. Often, we just see what we want to see. It’s an art on itself to overcome that human built in trap which is one of the most important elements to keep us alive, but a stand-in-the-way to discover new elements in often long-time accepted truths.