Joseph Haydn, ‘Lob der Faulheit’

The fourth episode of ‘Liederspiel’ premiered on our youtube channel on Saturday 12 December, 7pm British time:

Second edition of ‘Lob der Faulheit’
Second editon of ‘Lob der Faulheit’

Lessing wrote the poem as a 22-year-old while studying in Leipzig — casting himself in the perfect self-ironic persona of a student in essay crisis. The inability to write is not existential angst but rather that he cannot be bothered. “Faulheit” (more laisse-a-faire laziness than the severe theological vice of sloth) takes up the personification position normally occupied by the poet’s muse but a completely counterproductive one: instead of urging the poet along to sing the praises of a lover, a patron or herself, she slows him down. This is audible and visible in the metrical structure of the poem which consists exclusively of long syllables. These could be arranged in classical tradition as trochaic meter but the character is more that of a medieval song arranged according to stress patterns. There, a long syllable can either be half a bar or be stretched to fill the whole bar.

An attempt at a singable translation of the ‘Lob der Faulheit’, imitating the phrasing of Lessing’s poem.

This is what Haydn does in the introduction, which sets up the facetious mood of Lessing’s text almost immediately. First, Haydn introduces the drooping fourth of ‘Faulheit’, the motto of the Lied, filled out by two semiquavers (to mimic the poetic I’s slide into laziness). Laboured crotchets — oh, do I have to sing this song? — follow the descending fourth, leading to a rather neat, but nevertheless peremptory, cadence in A minor, the ostensible tonic (or home key) of the song. There is a surprise two bars after the cadence, before the close in E major, where Haydn brings in F sharp and D sharp to subvert motion towards the cadence — ‘oh, do we have to?’, the piano asks. Having portrayed so vividly the yawning sound by the drooping fourth, all the voice has to do with its entry is fill out the words, ‘Faulheit’. It is a testament to Haydn’s ability to imitate the sense of ‘Faulheit’ through musical intervals that the voice’s entry and its text, ‘Faulheit’, seem inevitable.

Embodied “Faulheit” — Pieter Brueghel: Luilekkerland (1567)

The piano accompaniment is determined to stifle any sort of logical singing of song, contriving long-winded shifts from one tonal region to another in order to emphasise the laboriousness of the task. Between ‘Faulheit, endlich muß ich dir auch ein kleines Loblied singen’ and ‘O! — wie — sau — er’, for example, the piano snakes down a chromatic scale — from a top A all the way down to a bottom C, preparing the next phrase. The same occurs after ‘wird es mir’, where the piano wriggles chromatically upwards to land haphazardly on F for the next phrase, ‘dich nach Würden zu besingen’, which, for its part, repeats the music from the opening section. But not quite exactly. The protagonist is audibly tired by this point, with rests imitating gasps for breath, yawns, or simply disinterest characterising his singing more than, well, song. If the protagonist is too bored by his song of praise to laziness, Haydn, it appears, had a great time.

The Lied was published as number 10 in the second collection of his XII Lieder für das Clavier (1784), or number 22 of the XXIV Lieder, lodged between ‘Minna’, a text by J.J. Engel, and the wonderfully flitting, ‘Das Leben ist ein Traum’, by the incredibly productive, yet incredibly pedestrian J.W.L. Gleim. But ‘Lob der Faulheit’ sticks out amongst its neighbour settings in its use of wit as a structuring principle — rather than the more sincere framing Lieder. Of course, this sits squarely within Haydn’s practice; as the composer of the ‘Farewell’ Symphony, which represents the ‘farewell’ by making the instrumentalists leave one-by-one, and the String Quartet, Op.33, number 2, with the famous last movement, whose Joke in the last movement is the inversion musical grammar, ending with musical material at the beginning, Haydn was predisposed to witty musical comment. Audiences today still have trouble stifling a wry smile and, possibly, a raised eyebrow at Haydn’s jokes. It is worth noting, perhaps, that the opus 33 String Quartets were published in 1781, the year that Haydn was putting together volume 1 of the collection.

Overall, Haydn and Lessing strike an excellent pair in this taut, infinitely pleasurable, Lied. Not only does Haydn find a musical cognate for Lessing’s long vowels, drawing out the first word in each verse to fill two bars, one for each syllable, but also find a means to represent silence; the dashes of the original poem he reads as pauses, transfusing verbal stuttering into musical nonchalence.

An experimental channel for discussing music & literature by Anhad Arora and Henrike Lähnemann