It is a dizzying prospect to choose where to begin when exploring the many delightful musical works written by Joseph Haydn. Here are some starting points.
He has been called, quite unjustly, “the poor man’s Mozart.” Though nearly every educated music lover acknowledges him as one of the great composers, few concert-going regulars can name just one of his operas. Several recording projects of his complete symphonies have been discontinued because of a lack of consumer interest. Dare to list him as one of your favorites, and many of the cognoscenti of music, thinking him the classical equivalent of easy-listening pop rock, will likely give you a patronizing smile.
Such is the fate of poor Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the Austrian composer who was one of the giants of his age and who became known as the father of the symphony and the string quartet for his perfection of those classical forms.
Mozart, who was usually critical of other composers, had the greatest admiration for the elder Haydn, and the two were friends. Mozart dedicated a group of six string quartets to the master, an unusual gesture at a time when works were dedicated almost exclusively to the wealthy patrons who commissioned them. One time, at a party that Mozart was attending, a piece of Haydn’s music was being played. A guest who was himself a minor composer kept criticizing the composition within earshot of Mozart. “I would not have done that,” the man said at one point in reference to how Haydn had developed a section of music. Mozart exploded: “Neither would I but do you know why? Because neither of us could have thought of anything so appropriate.”
I think that one reason that Haydn is so underrated today is that he simply wrote “too many notes” (to quote Emperor Joseph’s observation about Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio). A barrier to many when trying to explore classical music for the first time is the sheer volume of repertoire. It is simply a dizzying prospect to choose where to begin. In Haydn’s case, someone interested in sampling his music must choose from some 108 symphonies, 80 string quartets, 58 divertimenti, 52 piano sonatas, 40 piano trios, 14 Masses, 14 operas, 11 piano concertos, . . . the list goes on and on, including 32 pieces for “mechanical clock” (not the most popular of instruments today).
So, this essay is a primer for those who wish to explore the music of this great master. I will start with his symphonies, which are among the most delightful, accessible, and popular of his works.
Though most of Haydn’s symphonies are simply known by a number, the best have earned nicknames. The group of his last twelve symphonies are known collectively as the “London” symphonies, as Haydn composed them for a concert series in that city. They represent the height of his symphonic achievement and are, typically, full of high spirits tempered by occasional pomp and interjected with bits of wry humor, sometimes of the earthy variety. Symphony number 93 of the London set, for example, includes a slow movement that nearly comes to a standstill, when suddenly a bassoon releases a . . . ahem . . . well, a sour note that is likely meant to represent a burst of intestinal gas, which is then followed by what can only be described as orchestral laughter. Surely, such social faux pas were not unknown in Haydn’s day.
Haydn’s “Surprise” symphony (number 94) includes a sudden orchestral fortissimo, which tradition says Haydn composed to wake up an elder gentleman who had a subscription to Haydn’s concerts and who usually nodded off during the traditionally sedate second movements of his symphonies. The finale of Symphony number 98 has a false ending just before it features–uniquely–the introduction of a keyboard part. It was said that Haydn was asked by his patron to compose and play a piano piece for a particular concert but did not feel like doing so, and thus he included the short piano part at the end of the symphony to oblige the request. Symphony 100 is nicknamed the “Military” for its martial-sounding second movement, complete with trumpets and kettledrum; number 101 is called “the Clock” for the tick-tocking of the winds in the second movement; number 103 is “the Drumroll” as it opens with an improvised drum part which is ingeniously repeated near the end of the first movement.
I usually steer clear of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s recordings of the standard repertoire; there is almost always some grotesquerie–a slow movement taken at half-speed, a dynamic drop to near-inaudibility–that mars an otherwise outstanding reading. Happily, this is not the case with his cycle of the London Symphonies (you get Symphony #68 thrown in as a bonus): Haydn: London Symphonies.
Harnoncourt also conducts an excellent, quirk-free collection of earlier Haydn symphonies (plus a few extras) in another mp3 bargain. These include the “Hornsignal” (number 31) and “The Hunt” (number 73) that feature thrilling writing for horns, here played on raspy and characterful natural horns for which Haydn actually wrote (the modern horn is mellow and boring by comparison). Also included in this set is the famous triptych of numbers 6-8 (“Morning,” “Noon,” and “Night”) and the “Farewell” symphony, which ends with the players slowing dropping out of the musical line, a hint to Haydn’s patron that it was time for a vacation for the composer and his orchestra: Haydn: Famous Symphonies
No lover of Haydn should be without a recording of the “Maria Theresa” symphony (number 48), which is one of my favorite Haydn symphonies (and one of the few by the composer that retained its popularity through the nineteenth century). Its first movement, resplendent again with Haydn’s wonderful horn-writing, is one of the most viscerally exciting things Haydn wrote. Here is a performance with natural horns in period style by Thomas Fey: Haydn: Symphonies 48 & 56
Staying with orchestral music, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto is justly one of his most celebrated pieces. Here is a recording by Mark Bennett and Trevor Pinnock that is the most exciting version I have heard: Haydn: Concertos
Haydn really invented the form of the string quartet, and they are wonderfully played here: Haydn: The Complete String Quartets Played on Period Instruments.
Haydn’s Masses and other church works are a delight; the Mass in Time of War and the Missa Cellensis are particularly wonderful: Complete Masses.
Haydn wrote three oratorios, of which The Creation and The Seasons are supreme masterpieces, though the rarely recorded The Return of Tobias is also an impressive achievement. All three can be had here in this box set: Haydn: Oratorios.
Finally, for the daring among who wish to dip your toes into Haydn’s operas, here is a one-disc set of arias plus the famous concert aria, “Scena di Berenice”: Ladies First! Opera Arias by Joseph Haydn.
Of course, I have only scratched the surface here, my dear readers. But I hope these suggested starting points help you travel down the path of exploration of Joseph Haydn’s wondrous music!
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The featured image, “Portrait of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809),” by John Hoppner and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.