(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 6:51 PM Eastern on 19 Jan. See below.)
Yesterday, on a classical music forum in which I sometimes participate, there erupted a (mostly) friendly rumble between partisan enthusiasts of the instrumental music of Haydn and Mozart, the exchanges consisting of each side making the case for its hero by way of pointed quips unencumbered by substantive considerations musicological, theoretical, or technical.
In other words, your typical online classical music Friendly Forum Food Fight; an entertaining and harmless way to pass an online half-hour or so.
I, of course, got in my quip or ten in behalf of my hero, Mozart, but in the process began thinking more seriously about the two great composers. Why is it, I asked myself, that I think Mozart's mature instrumental music so superior to Haydn's, and could I, if I took the time to do so, back up that judgment on musicological or music theory grounds?
Well, the question is partially moot in my case, for as I noted elsewhere on this weblog, I'm so far removed from my music theory days that any facility I once possessed in that domain has from long disuse become so arthritic as to be all but useless. I think, however, I can express the nub of that judgment without resort to the musicological or theoretical.
In tuning into an unfamiliar work on the radio, for instance, having missed the announced title but knowing instantly that it's a mature instrumental work by one or the other composer, there invariably at some fairly early point emerges from the fabric of the ground a particularly beautiful or provocative phrase, theme, or sequence, hintingly pregnant with expressive melodic and harmonic possibility. If that phrase, theme, or sequence is then developed and rounded off formally in a most satisfying and superbly crafted Classical-period manner, occasional and typically witty surprise departures notwithstanding, one recognizes immediately the hand of Haydn at work, and not Mozart. Had it been Mozart's hand at work, that phrase, theme, or sequence would, more often than not, have entered regions unexpected of its Classical-period provenance, its expressive possibility, priorly only hintingly perceived, there developed and spun out in ways suggesting the intervention of some not-of-this-world musical intelligence, and only then being permitted to reach its superbly crafted, Classical-period, formal rounding off.
And there, in a non-technical, non-theoretical nutshell, is, I think, the principal difference between the mature instrumental music of these two composers, master Classical-period craftsmen both. Unlike the instrumental music of the mature Mozart, Haydn's mature instrumental music neither risks soaring the heights nor plumbing the depths, but remains, in all its superbly crafted formal beauty, sensibly and resolutely earthbound while Mozart's aspires to, reaches for, and often caresses the cosmos.
That's my sense of the matter, at any rate, and I refuse to entertain any techie, 21st-century rationalist, or post-modern quibbling or carping on the business. Save that sort of thing for the New Music crowd and its products where it more appropriately belongs.
Update (6:51 PM Eastern on 19 Jan): Steve Hicken of Listen comments on my closing graf. For details, and my response, see this post.