‘In More Exalted Fields of Human Endeavour, It Is Difficult to Think of Geniuses Who Were Truly Evil’
When I am in England I am fortunate enough to live in a pleasant little town which holds the only annual Haydn festival in the country. At lunchtime during the festival I can walk to either of two nearby churches to listen to a chamber concert. The better church, acoustically, was built by Thomas Telford, the great engineer who invented the suspension bridge. His architectural style was cool, classical and rational rather than Gothic or decorated, not at all suited to religious zealotry and more adapted to a tepid deism than to transports of pietism.
It is a perfect place in which to listen to Haydn string quartets, which I love; and this year’s quartet was very good. It was formed in 1993 and I was much moved by the evident affection of the players for one another after so many years of ceaseless and unrelenting work in close association together. They were specialists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century repertoire, and surely the inexhaustible depth and beauty of this repertoire was not unconnected to their capacity to survive constant close association with such good feeling. I am not by nature envious, at least by comparison with many other people I have known, but I confess that I envied them.
Haydn is an interesting figure, for he refutes in his own person the romantic notion that a creative person must either be tormented or a swine. (Haydn was tormented, but only by his wife who was a shrew, and that is not the kind of torment that the romantics mean. They mean inner torment.) Haydn is universally acknowledged to have been a delightful man with the most equable temperament; but the virtual inventor of the string quartet, and masterly composer for it, can hardly be denied the title of genius. Mozart deeply and sincerely revered him; there could hardly be a better testimonial than that.
Another undoubted genius of the most attractive character who comes to mind is Chekhov, probably the greatest writer of short-stories who ever lived. No doubt there has been a deal of hagiography in the way that he has been memorialised; but not even the late Christopher Hitchens could have debunked him in even a minimally convincing way. Few men have ever had such an inextinguishable if evasive charm; even Tolstoy, who was not easy to please, least of all by people who were not contented to be his uncritical acolytes and were his equals, loved him.