A quirky Haydn symphony list

MONDAY, November 16, 2020 – 3:34 AM

A quirky Haydn symphony list

I found this list weeks ago, and I read about his “Haydn experiment” with a good bit of curiosity. Since then I’ve somewhat followed in his footsteps, but most likely at a much more leisurely pace. 104 symphonies is a daunting number when some famous composers wrote only four or five, and now we think there were actually more symphonies.

There are four from Brahms. There are five linked to Mendelssohn, but one of those is not really a symphony and was not named by Mendelssohn. Tchaikovsky wrote either six or seven, depending how you number his “Manfred”, then there is the trend setter, Beethoven, who wrote nine, Schubert wrote eight or nine, depending how they are numbered, Dvorak wrote nine, and so it goes. Mahler apparently wrote 10, and some say Bruckner wrote 10.

Mozart appears to have written 41, but many of those are from his teenage years and not really important.

From Beethoven on, the rule of thumb is that more than nine is usually just too much. Yet Haydn wrote more than one hundred, and that makes it very hard to rate them or even know where to start.

They made this guy listen to all 104 Haydn symphonies

Well, that’s what the article says. It does not say if he was held at gunpoint, or if he was locked in musical prison until he was done – or if he got paid a good deal of money for this big experiment.

He put them in order of greatness

I don’t think anyone is supposed to take his list seriously or that he himself viewed his ratings with a great deal of seriousness.

And yet…

It’s a fun list, and at times I think he came close to “getting it right”. His short, humorous thumbnails are interesting. I found myself listening with the idea of ultimately agreeing or disagreeing with his conclusions. It was fun walking in the footsteps of someone else who wrestled with the problem of deciding which of these symphonies most deserve to be heard. Maybe someday I’ll make my own “top ten” list.

So, if I wrote my own list, what would it be like?

First of all, it would not be as funny. I’m not good with one-liners. But I would put more weight on instrumentation. I would definitely put a huge emphasis on evolution, so I would rate the so called “London Symphonies” very highly, and in general I would be less enthusiastic about the Paris Symphonies because the instrumentation, in general, is less rich and varied. In general – so far because I have not listened to even half of them – I just don’t like the early symphonies nearly as well.

Did he continue getting better? Or did he just “phone in” some of these symphonies?

I think both. Sometimes he appeared to write things that were of high quality but not necessarily in any way new or inspired. For those he “phoned in” his “craft level” remained very high. The man had an incredibly high level of polish for what he did, so his weakest symphonies to me seem to me to have been better than the best efforts of everyone else who lived at the same time, with the exception of Mozart. And he definitely had a formula.

What was the Haydn formula?

First of all he almost always wrote four movements. You have to go way back to the beginning of his career to see only three movements. The rest of the time he wrote four movements with a pattern. First there was the intro to the 1st movement, slow, The first movement was about 10 minutes of jaunty music, usually with a big finish, and by the end of his career there was most always a slow intro, often of mock seriousness. Next came a slow 2nd movement followed by a minuet or scherzo. Rather than calling his 3rd movement “scherzos”, those movement tended to become more dramatic and faster over time, turning into something very like Beethoven’s scherzos, or at least close. Finally there was always a – what else – a finale. And that finale was usually very fast with a ton of energy and a big ending. Haydn really knew how to finish a symphony!

His major works tended, literally, to be major…

He almost always wrote in major, with occasional minor moments, most often in the slow movements. A movement in minor was unusual. Haydn, for the most part, was not a moody or morose man. He also loved to throw in surprises and was renowned for his great sense of humor.

If it was just a formula, where is the genius?

The answer for me is that along with his formula he appeared to have been utterly inspired at times, so in some of these 104 symphonies there is exceptional writing and rare creativity. When you combine that inspiration with absolutely top-notch craft, the result is something that is simply wonderful.

Finally,  a matter of instruments

I started this Haydn exploration knowing very little about Haydn or his music, and what I found out is that by the end of his life his instrumentation had become standard for a number of years. Early in his career you often hear no trumpets, meaning a lack of brass – which I definitely don’t like – and there are other instruments missing. Clarinet did not become “a thing” until later in his life, when you see him using it a lot and then notice that both Mozart and Beethoven followed suit. Timpani mostly was not used, and then it became more and more vital to symphonies to the point that it became the one and only percussion instrument used as a default instrument. In the Romantic era you start hearing many other percussion instruments added, but not in his time period. Tuba was not added until later, and you see trombone used by all composers of this time infrequently. Flute was not always used. So when you see more strings (more players) plus flute, clarinet, trumpet and timpani you know you’ve reached a point where Haydn had the most freedom and resources. That, in my opinion, is when Haydn fully developed into the composer he became, the one who pushed Mozart into writing his best music and the one who perhaps pushed Beethoven the most into evolving further.

1 thought on “A quirky Haydn symphony list

  1. Thank you for the information. I learned about Haydn’s formula and perhaps his influence on Mozart and Beethoven. I’ve only listened to a few of the symphonies and agree that when more instruments were used it added to the enjoyment of the music.

    Not moody, great sense of humor? I would like to have had the opportunity to meet him.

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