Worthy of a great reception

Wildly applauded along London streets in his day, Haydn gets his second wind

The cross-network Haydn season starts in earnest this month on Radio 3, marking the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death with orchestral performances live from Paris, Oxford and Vienna. On Radio 4, a couple of teaser Haydn documentaries have tickled your reviewer, especially Hunting Haydn’s Head, (30 May, 10.30am), in which zealous fans stole the maestro’s skull after his death.

Previously, we had followed the 58-year-old composer to London, where he was lured in 1791 with the promise of a stipend of £1,200 (an inordinate sum at the time), only to find himself wildly applauded by fans whenever he walked down the street. So gratified was the humble kapellmeister by the electricity of his reception that he immediately settled in Lisson Grove, where he pressed his limbs against those of a new mistress and doodled in his home-made book of “excitements” – fave recipes, gossip about China, tips on how to keep the milk fresh should one ever be lost for six weeks at sea (he asked a sailor).

“Just imagine how many morning chat shows he would have been on,” mused one of the programme’s contributors. “Just imagine him set in a modern context!” (Oh, must we? It’s so killing. And why stop at a one-to-one with Lorraine Kelly? Let’s go all out and imagine him as a guest critic on Newsnight Review, at a performance of Hedda Gabler, with his fingers in his ears, waiting for the loud bit that confirms the heroine has just croaked.)

The slight implication of the – altogether excellent, really a hoot – documentary was that if the media and public went berserk for Haydn then, it’s a shame nobody really gives two hoots about him now, preferring the slutty Mozart, or the deaf one that bit down on sticks.

An expert on the Behavioural Patterns of 18th-Century Concert Audiences (I can’t tell you how much it relieved me to learn such a person exists) described how, during a performance, fans would lounge about on sofas guzzling chocolate, or possibly sleeping though the Symphony No 6 altogether (no change there, then, but I speak as someone with a congenital lowness of brow when it comes to Haydn – his musical scores look to like me like tadpoles queuing on the stairs), and then leaping up and crowding round the players during the good bits.

Meanwhile, Ode to Whitman (30 May, 12.15pm) confirmed Radio 3’s status as the best in the country. Examining Walt Whitman’s influence on composers from Vaughan Williams to Hindemith, the programme rightly called on Wagner and Stravinsky to rise up and do their worst with “Song of Myself”.

That Whitman was essentially a great songwriter is scarcely a new suggestion, but one I love – his lines are so full of hooks and middle eights that they beg to be sung. There he would sit, on the bus going through Manhattan, singing Shakespeare at the top of his lungs (I mean, can you imagine? And that soft beard of brotherly love. Oh God, he truly is the yobbo of my dreams), producing from his back pocket little scraps of paper on which were scribbled phrases of his own, which he would sing, too, checking their “atmosphere”.

The great poet’s favourite sound was that of the human voice. How he would have loved the radio.

Pick of the week

Jazz Library: Joni Mitchell
6 June, 4pm, Radio 3
The presenter Alyn Shipton and musician Christine Tobin explore the singer’s jazz-influenced work.

The Reith Lectures
Start 9 June, 9am, Radio 4
Delivered this year by the philosopher and Harvard University professor Michael Sandel.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.