What I'm Working On: Haydn - Cello Concerto in C: Mvt 1


This is about the twenty-seventh time I’ve tried to start a blog post about this piece - how can it be done? Far less of a puzzle than the Walton, this one can only really be truly expressed through the playing of it. And, as my family will well know by now, I do enjoy playing it. Perhaps then, as I’ve practised this piece so repetitively, it’s hard to express a resonance with a piece which goes a little bit deeper than the medium of a blog post could express. Nevertheless, I shall try.

After a busy month, I’ve been spending more and more time on public transport and regrettably less time on detailed cello practise - something I’m really hoping to get going again with in the coming months. Thank goodness, then, that when I started learning this piece detail really was the aim of my practise. In fact, I might go as far as to say that this piece has taught me how to practise properly. In places, it’s very much like a study - one which tests various technical aspects of cello playing, such as scales, thumb position and bow control. Such music needs absolute control. Gone, then, were the times of blitzing through a piece mediocrely. This concerto requires slow, detailed practice almost in its purest form. Now, that’s not to say that I am especially perfect at that art yet - indeed I do find myself blitzing through all sorts of passages in all sorts of pieces. Somehow though, this piece allows me to reconnect with a calm, thorough mindset.

Haydn’s two concertos for cello (this on in C, and another in D) were pretty much forgotten about and only really rediscovered a few decades ago. Since then, they’ve been much loved, and it’s easy to see why. While it contains the expected functional harmony and standard ‘classical’ tropes, it’s done with such a loving understanding of the instrument, making it the perfect amounts of challenging and satisfying to play, while maintaining a sense of excitement and liveliness for the listener rather than just going through the motions in order for the cello to show off over the tonic and dominant (something which, I’ll admit, is a bit of a preconception I have of some classical concertos).

This is the ‘earliest’ piece in my programme (as in, it was composed before all the others) but at the moment I’m electing to play it second. This is perhaps because I feel the Hindemith (more to come soon on that) is more representative of how I’d like to open a performance, yet it immediately needs something as pure as this piece after it to cleanse the pallet. If the Hindemith is designed to melt your brain, the Haydn is designed to put it all back together again.

There’s no escaping that this piece is very technically difficult, however in terms of understanding it structurally and harmonically, it’s much kinder (that’s not to say it isn’t clever in the way it does this, though). I’ve chosen a picture of a burning cello, not because that’s what I want to do to my poor instrument, but because although it feels like my fingers might set on fire sometimes when I play bits at full speed, fire purifies. There’s also an art to playing this so that it sounds effortless, because it physically won’t be. It almost requires the perfect balance between mental calm and physical skill - which is a challenge in itself as it requires great technical prowess not to be forced, but to simply come naturally.

The other thing to notice about this piece is the fact that it finishes with a solo cadenza - something very exciting to me as a composer, as I will attempt to compose my own! It is already proving harder than it may seem, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to take as it means I can incorporate more of my musical self into the programme I’m putting together.

This is perhaps the piece I’m ‘best’ at at the moment (of course, this correlates to the fact that I have been learning it the longest), so it will be interesting to see how it feels compared to the other 4 pieces I am preparing when all are at similar standards. For now, it feels a little like a refuge - albeit one which presents its own challenges.

Benjamin JacksonComment