Betrachtung des Todes
, a late little masterpiece by the composer, represents the simultaneity of the old and the new. The text is the second verse of Gellert’s fourteen-verse poem ‘Wie sicher lebt der Mensch, der Staub!’, No. 50 in the volume
Geistliche Oden und Lieder
, 1757. In the short catalogue at the end of the volume Gellert names the hymn ‘Herr Jesu Christ, meines Lebens Licht’, as the appropriate melody for the poem. Haydn’s vocal trio with
is perhaps the most extraordinary setting in the series of the
(Hob. XXVb:3). Its harmonies and key changes uncannily foreshadow the language of Schubert and Mendelssohn. The musical representation of the poetic lines, on the other hand, is full of rhetorical devices. Most startling is the presence of figured bass, as an anachronistic code for the keyboard accompaniment. Co-existence of Baroque and Romantic, or ‘First Viennese Modernism’ (James Webster): the roots of the composer’s professional education preserved in a highly innovative setting of an old Protestant poem, in the very last years of the eighteenth century.