Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Let me entertain you: Haydn at the 1850 New York State Fair


            Fairgoers from Malone to Albany were excited to read in the newspapers that a production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons, would be a featured musical event at the New York State Fair in 1850.

            Perhaps Haydn’s greatest masterpiece, the oratorio is a paean to nature and farmers. The music had been first performed in Vienna, Austria, in 1801. About two and a half hours long, the piece is divided into four sections, one per season. The composition includes hunting and drinking songs, love duets, chirping crickets and croaking frogs, whirring spinning wheels, gunshots, a powerful thunderstorm, and an ode to hard work.
            The Harmonia Society of Albany, which had been organized the previous year by Ferdinand Ilsely, performed The Seasons on September 3, 4, 5, and 6, 1850. The choir had 40 sopranos, 20 altos, 20 tenors, and 15 bassos, and the orchestra 30 instruments. The press estimated that the performance cost about $1200 to $1500 (or about $33,000 to $42,000 in today’s money) to produce.


            Predictably, the style of music performed at the state fair changed as the years passed. In the 20th century, the pop music duo Sonny and Cher broke the fair’s concert attendance record in 1972. Thirty-nine years later, in 2011, the singer Bruno Mars broke the attendance record again.

            Will a new record be set at this year’s “great annual festival of the farmers. . . this great jubilee”? If Bruno Mars was able to top Sonny and Cher, and Haydn, anything is possible.

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