Mr. Peabody is me:
Mr. Peabody is the dog from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. He showed up again in 2014, HERE. He was kind of a compulsive explainer. Maybe all of us have a little bit of Mr. Peabody in us when we talk about something that is special for us. I use this picture in each post for what I think is super interesting.
How I got hooked on Haydn:
I love symphonies because I was a brass player, and I love the sound of all the instruments playing together. It’s a huge sound, and very varied. There are so many contrasts.
I knew that Haydn wrote more than 100. But I only listened to a couple, and just a little. I’ve mostly listened to the later symphonies, the big Romantic ones, starting with Beethoven but going right through today. I just didn’t know Haydn’s music. But then I started listening, and I was shocked by how good they are.
I figured there were maybe five to 10 good ones:
My thought was that if he wrote more than 100, surely he phoned some in. It must have been a formula, more craft than personal expression. But I started listening more, in curiosity. I figured the last ones must have been best, so I started there. The late ones have more instruments. That attracted me.
I checked the ones with nicknames:
I figured that the ones with catchy names must be the best, so I mostly started there. I wasn’t too wrong about the named symphonies being mostly very good. But I found out that there are many with no names that are just as good.
So I went back to the beginning, to #1:
Well, it turns out that the 1st is not really the 1st. When Haydn was old, he started keeping careful records about when he wrote things, but as a young man he didn’t. So for something like the first 50 there is a really weird numbering. In general the ones with low numbers were early, so it’s not totally wrong. If you look at the first 20, they really were written early, and the last 20 really were written towards the end of his life. But some of them can be off as much as 10 in the numbering, or perhaps even worse.
You can go by number or date:
I decided to go by number, because that way you are sort of in order, and everyone agrees on those numbers. They just argue about the order of composition. If you try to go by year, it’s just a mess, since everyone guesses, and every year someone else finds out more and changes the history.
So, how many are good?
This was my shock. I expected some real duds. Of course some are better than others, although everyone disagrees about which ones are best. But there was not one that was bad. Not one. In other words, the worst symphony was good, and from there they just got better and better and better.
It turns out that Haydn was both a master craftsman and an amazingly original musician. The craft is why he really could not write something bad. He shared this with Bach, who also was good, at his worst. There is something about the rules and the training of those times that gave them formulas, and plans. That’s the craft part. But the other part is the genius, and that part simply can’t be analyzed, only appreciated, in fact marveled at.
Haydn was a wonderful man, loved by everyone. He protected his players. He was a fantastic friend to Mozart. When people called him “Papa”, that was said with total respect and admiration. So many musicians are narcissists who put their art above other people. Listening to their music you have no idea how awful they were. This it not true of all of them, but for an idea just check out the lives of Debussy and Wagner. They were not nice people, and they were not the only ones.
But Haydn was a man you can admire as a master composer while absolutely loving his life, what he did with it and how he treated other people.