Haydn – The Mermaid’s Song, Hob. XXVIa no. 25

by Max Derrickson

Franz Josef Haydn     (Born March 31, 1732 in Rohrau, Austria; died May 31, 1809 in Vienna)

The Mermaid’s Song, Hob. XXVIa no. 25

By the time Haydn had reached his 29th year of service in 1790 to his patron, the music loving Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy of Vienna, he was undeniably the most famous living composer in the world.  But, in those days of musical patronage, he wasn’t entirely free to go where he pleased and collect a fortune to his fame – being in the service of a patron was a contract, and one not easily broken.  But fortune shined on Haydn in 1790, in a strange twist, with the death of Prince Nikolaus that year.  Prince Nikolaus’s successor, Prince Anton, gutted his predecessor’s lavish musical workforce, retaining only Haydn and two other musicians, which freed up Haydn’s workload considerably, and coincided with a famous visit from a London gentleman.

That visitor was Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815), known in London as its most influential impresario.  He invited Haydn to visit London for a year, assuring him that he would be treated as a treasured guest, and offering him
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the Salomon-Haydn business deal produced some of the great pieces in Western music.  Haydn was so charmed by London and the friends he made there that he returned two years later, preparing six more symphonies for his return – all twelve, numbers 93 – 104, are now known as the “London Symphonies” and are among the pinnacles of the Classical Symphonic genre.

As for his friends, one in particular was Mrs. Anne Hunter, wife of a famous surgeon John Hunter.  She was a gifted poet in her own right and a wonderfully popular salon host.  There is some conjecture that Haydn was smitten with her charms (although it is certain that he was with
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The result is a set of immensely charming and tuneful songs, somewhat in the popular vein meant for intimate parlor entertainment, but created so well as to now stand as some of the most significant art songs that Haydn composed.

The “canzonetta” as a song form originated in Renaissance Italy,
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The Mermaid’s Song (the song was numbered No. 25 by Haydn’s cataloger, Anthony van Hoboken) – employing an instantly memorable melody and filled with lighthearted charms.

One particular masterstroke by Haydn makes The Mermaid the delight that it is – “tone-painting,” also called “word-painting.”  Haydn could be said to use the term in both of its implied ways.  First, with tones, as he begins with a rocking figure in the piano introduction, using a rising melodic figure in the right hand over an unchanging pitch in the bass hand,
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beckoning us into the deep to find treasures untold.

Secondly, Haydn employs word-painting, as the Mermaid convinces us to join her.  One excellent example occurs on the words “Come with me and we will go”
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Haydn’s skill for melodic beauty outshines all else, as we are seduced by his own siren song.


The Mermaid’s Song

– Anne Hunter (1741 – 1821)

Now the dancing sunbeams play
On the green and glassy sea,
Come, and I will lead the way
Where the pearly treasures be.

Come with me, and we will go
Where the rocks of coral grow.
Follow, follow, follow me.

Come, behold what treasures lie
Far below the rolling waves,
Riches, hid from human eye,
Dimly shine in ocean’s caves.
Ebbing tides bear no delay,
Stormy winds are far away.

Come with me, and we will go
Where the rocks of coral grow.
Follow, follow, follow me.