I think the closest modern equivalents to Franz Josef Haydn are the Arctic Monkeys.
Yes, I’m serious.
Haydn lived during the late 1700’s, a time when form was paramount. In fact, Haydn himself actually had a hand in standardizing sonata form, which came to be considered the ideal form for “serious” music for something like a century after his death. But although he helped to standardize and regularly used this form, he was also constantly playing around with it. Where the standard form called for two different themes, he experimented with using one theme in both places. Where the standard form required the first theme to be repeated in the home key of the movement, he would repeat it in the wrong key, only to repeat it again in the right key later on. Where the second theme was supposed to be repeated, he would repeat it upside down. He wrote palindromic minuets, and minuets that were also canons. And he’s also known for his sense of humor, the most famous example being the slow movement of the “Surprise” symphony, which has a sudden loud chord in the middle of a quiet passage. He also wrote a string quartet (op. 33 no. 2) where the end of the finale is filled with long pauses, just so he could laugh as the audience got confused about when to applaud.
The Arctic Monkeys have a similar kind of shtick going on; they constantly play around with the standard verse-chorus form, often throwing in jokes as well.
From the Ritz to the Rubble
This song has no first verse; the introduction runs long, and then transitions straight to the chorus. The next part, beginning with the words, “This town’s a different town today,” might be what the first verse would have sounded like if it hadn’t been overridden by the introduction, but that’s just conjecture. Then after the second chorus, what sounds like the bridge suddenly transitions into an outro, and the song is over. So our traditional verse-chorus form is cut off unexpectedly at both ends. It seems like they were experimenting with beginnings and endings in this one.
Still Take You Home
This song starts with a short, distinctive introductory motif before jumping into the first verse. The verses aren’t particularly unusual, but the chorus has a moment (between the words “So what do you know?” and “You know nothing”) where it slows down noticeably.
After the second chorus, we finally find out the purpose of all that slowing down: it prepares us for the bridge, where the song changes tempo and style to the point of almost sounding like a different genre.
Then as the bridge is ending, the introductory motif is played again. This part kind of reminds me of the first movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata, where the introduction is repeated before the development (basically the Classical version of the bridge) and again in the conclusion.
After the bridge, the chorus is repeated again. This is just like the conventional form. But then after the chorus, the song ends with one last verse! =O
So we have a genre change during the bridge, and then the song ends with a verse. I’d hesitate to call it “unprecedented”–there’s always someone somewhere who’s thought of something before you did–but this kind of structural tweaking is definitely rare, to put it mildly.
You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights, but You Were Staring Straight At Me
This one also has some funky formal stuff going on. Although there are two fairly obvious verses, there’s no clearly marked chorus or bridge; there is one part that sounds like a chorus, beginning with the words “so tense, never tenser,” but it never gets repeated. The song also introduces some new melodies before ending abruptly.
But what I find really interesting is the way this song handles voicing.
We first hear the main melody of the verses played by the guitar during the introduction. This is then picked up by the backup singers, before the lead singer picks it up. Then for the rest of the first verse, the backup singers and lead singer keep throwing the melody back and forth. (The lead singer sings the second verse alone, though.)
Passing melodies between voices was actually one of Haydn’s favorite tricks. The first example that comes to my mind is the very beginning of the first movement of his string quartet op. 33 no. 1.
(Don’t feel obliged to listen to the whole thing, all the stuff I refer to happens in the first 10 seconds or so)
The melody starts out in the first violin. Then after the first cadence (0:07 in the video), the cello picks up the melody, and the violins switch to accompaniment. But then before you quite notice it, suddenly the first violin has taken the melody back and the cello has switched back to accompaniment (at about 0:10). Of course, this is much more subtle, though.
And then–going back to “You Probably Couldn’t See for the Lights”–there’s the accompaniment during the verses. The Classical period was partly a reaction against the Baroque penchant for multiple melodies, so Classical pieces generally have one clear dominant melody. However, Classical composers (including Haydn, of course) did like to form their accompaniments from the same motifs as the main melody, so that when you heard them together it sounded like there were multiple melodies going on even though there was only one. This was so distinctive of the Classical style that even during the Romantic period, when composers wrote in sonata form they made sure to use this trick. And in this song, throughout both the verses, the guitar is constantly repeating an accompaniment figure that begins with the same notes as the main verse melody. They do pretty much the same thing as well throughout the aforementioned chorus-ish part on the words “so tense” etc. So the Arctic Monkeys have here replicated one of the quintessential techniques of the Classical period, pretty much to the letter.
So that’s why I like to think of these guys as the modern rock version of Haydn; they have that same love of experimentation with form.
Oh, and lastly, the Arctic Monkeys’ sense of humor is pretty well known, but here’s one example just for completeness: