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Rick Jones joins composers from around the world
to celebrate Haydn’s legacy – and see his two skul

Because the town of Eisenstadt in Austria was home to the composer Franz Joseph Haydn for most of his life, it has become the focus of some attention in this, the bicentenary of the composer's death. The proud authorities there have marked the occasion in two ways. First, they have commissioned 18 new piano trios from composers all over the world, which the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, having performed them there, will bring to London in September. Second, they have mounted a display of Haydn's two heads, which, for the cost of a euro, visitors may view in the church where he is entombed.

Readers may be surprised to learn that Haydn had two heads. Between performances of the new piano trios, I paid to see them. They are both skulls. One is clean and white and has a strong, prominent jaw. This is the head Haydn used when he was alive. Phrenologists - students of the now-discredited science that believes character is determined by skull shape - cut it off and stole it shortly after Haydn died in Vienna. The opportunity to study the head of a genius clearly overcame their misgivings about either the legality or the morality of their action.

The other skull is small and brown and has a broken jaw. This was the substitute obtained when Haydn's erstwhile employer Prince Nikolaus Esterházy discovered that the corpse he had fetched for reburial in Eisenstadt was headless. "Better any head than none," he said. The provenance of the replacement is unknown, but it remained Haydn's head for 130 years, as the original was not reunited with the body until 1954.

The phrenologists believed the skull would provide evidence for Haydn's genius. More reliable proof was available from the sheer volume of work he produced: the 104 symphonies; 84 string quartets; operas, oratorios, masses, piano sonatas; other chamber pieces including those for long-obsolete instruments such as the flute-clock; and about 600 songs, 400 of them arrangements of Scottish folk songs commissioned by publishers in London, where he had become something of a superstar. Unlike Bach and Handel, Haydn almost never repeated himself, so effortlessly did he compose.

“String quartets would have been too obvious," says Walter Reicher, artistic director of the Haydn Festival 2009, of the decision to commission the piano trios. Haydn's own output in this genre, numbering 30 works, takes the form on from its modest beginnings where the cello doubles the piano's left hand and the violin merely embellishes the right, to a tight-knit but com­bative meeting of three independent voices. In music history, the piano trio is second only to the string quartet as the ideal chamber group.

Every one of the 18 composers has been gathered for the so-called Triothlon: six from Austria, six from Europe and six from the rest of the world, all presenting themselves on stage before the premiere of their eight-to-ten-minute, Haydn-inspired composition. There are 13 concerts to attend in four days and the sight of groups of composers taking the kilometre walk from the hotel to the concert hall in the Esterházy Palace and back becomes familiar. The custard-yellow palace is impressive. The outer wall is decorated with terracotta ancestral busts, one of which is Attila the Hun. "He wasn't really in the family," says Reicher. "The Esterházys didn't go that far back, so they made up their history. One of the family trees includes Adam and Eve."

“I used to play the early piano trios," boasts the American composer William Bolcom in his introductory talk, "but the cellist always complained!" Bolcom's contribution is a witty web of rondo themes that Haydn might have dreamed up. The German Dieter Schnebel takes a similarly light-hearted line and bases his composition on a single phrase from the Joke Quartet (Opus 33 No 2). Unexpected harmonies underpin the skittish theme. Some people snigger. With the original, Haydn won a bet that he could make the audience talk before the end.

Lalo Schifrin, the wealthy Argentinian film composer (Dirty Harry, Mission: Impossible, etc) arrives in time for the photograph. He wears two-tone shades and a shiny blue suit. His coiffed wife towers over him like a bodyguard in a pencil skirt. His piece romances Haydn in gentle tango rhythms and an introspective coda. The Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye comes with a posse of sinister minders. He wrote the piece that Lang Lang played at the Beijing Olympics, but his Haydn inspiration is bitter and lacks charm. He says the Cultural Revolution kept Haydn from him until he was 33. Japan's Yui Kakinuma, his wife trotting behind in a kimono, takes a jaunty theme that spells out Haydn's name, running it repeatedly, varying it minimally and cutting it off abruptly when the time runs out.

The South African Bongani Ndodana-Breen hears jazzy rhythms and singable harmony in Haydn. The Australian Elena Kats-Chernin is a live wire, dressing like a flamboyant hippie and expressing the thrill of the festival in infectious laughter. Haydn, too, made Eisenstadt happy, not even thinking of a minor key until Symphony No 26. Kats-Chernin has had more success than most since turning away from intellectual complexity and scoring a hit with "Eliza's Aria" in a Lloyds TSB commercial. Her Haydn piece opens the Triothlon with a flowing stream of excited quavers that seduces everyone into an accessibly contemporary sound-world.

The Briton John Woolrich teams strings with piano in an aggressive, inward-looking dialogue that sounds both loud and private, like an argument eavesdropped on through the keyhole of a castle chamber. Haydn was a congenial sort, but he didn't get on with his wife. The 83-year-old French composer Betsy Jolas studied with everyone from Milhaud to Messiaen, replacing the latter at the Paris Conservatoire in 1970. Her heartfelt, searching work is the first to mourn abstractly the passing of Papa Haydn. She says her starting point was the country-dance theme from the last movement of the last symphony, No 104 (the "London Symphony"). It comes to us through mist and with the saddest steps.

The six Austrian composers - Doderer, Everhartz, Hödl, Harnik, Krammer and Schedlberger - devise the most extreme works, as if they
alone are determined to rescue Haydn from his pit of classical gentility. Pure, high dissonance matches the mightiest belly hammerings and grotesque, angular dances contrast with the serenest dreamscapes.

Haydn came to London in the 1790s and so does the entire Triothlon experience next month, taking over the new chamber venues at Kings Place for a week. The Haydn Trio Eisenstadt will perform the 18 new works along with a selection of Haydn's own piano trios. To have performed so many premieres in such a short space of time, even rehearsing them on the internet for the benefit of the composers, is a phenomenal achievement, and to repeat it in one of the world's great cities will be no less so.

They will not be the only performers. The Esterházy Baryton Ensemble is to bring a selection of the dozens of works that Haydn composed
for Prince Nikolaus, an amateur exponent of the cello-like baryton, while the singers Lorna Anderson and Jamie MacDougall will perform some
of the aforementioned Scottish songs. Many of them are settings of Robert Burns, whose 250th birthday, let us not forget, we celebrate in 2009. It's a double-header, in a sense.

The Eisenstadt Haydn Festival is at Kings Place, London NW1, 7-13 September. For more information, visit:

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Is Google Evil?

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.