A Musical Journey

I’ve detected a trait in myself over the years – a tendency to set what are for me pointless, possibly unachievable goals. First among these has to be the desire to climb all the Munros. After a few years, it became clear that, although I enjoyed climbing them (and still do, occasionally), I didn’t really have the completist drive to carry on to the bitter end.  I just don’t mind whether I climb them all or not. I’ve discovered that it’s more rewarding -for me- to simply work through them, “collecting” them if you like, using the list as an inspiration to visit different parts of Scotland occasionally, when I have the time, and climb different hills.

So: I’m not going to say at this point that I’m setting out to listen to all of Haydn’s symphonies – all 104 of them. I have, however, started at number one. I don’t know how far I’ll get or how long it’ll take me. I know several already – enough to know I tend to like the earlier ones I’m familiar with more than the later ones. Consequently, I don’t mind very much if the project fizzles out. I’ll almost certainly listen to all the early ones before it does. The aim isn’t to get to 104: it’s to hopefully fall in love with a few pieces of music I don’t yet know. As with the Munros, it can be better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

I don’t know as much as I should about Haydn especially considering he’s one of my favourite composers. He lived in the 18th Century and was a man of his times: he went from working for the aristocracy to writing music for public concerts. There is a dramatic story of the impresario Salomon crossing Europe, knocking on his door and, when a bemused Haydn opened it, announcing “I am Salomon, and I have come to take you to London.” He did, and the result was Haydn’s series of “London Symphonies” (nos. 93-104). I’m currently listening to number seven so that’s, er, eighty-five to go…

The scale of Haydn’s output is staggering and perhaps counts against his popularity. How can one start a pub conversation about a band that has made 104 albums? If you only produce a small, respectable number, fans can compare notes. Also, if you produce so much, people will suspect your work to be watered down, lacking the intensity of artists who produce less. Less is, after all, more, they’ll think. In Haydn’s case, nothing could be further from the truth. Haydn is a one-man Western tradition.

Perhaps the most important thing I know about the man is that he really did have a reputation in his lifetime for being all the things people say about you when you die – he really was, apparently, a thoroughly nice, good natured bloke with a great sense of humour. I say this is important because I think it really does come through in the music. Even when it’s dark it has a good-natured quality that has Haydn’s name written all over it. I would go so far as to say that, for some people, there are prescription drugs out there which are not half as effective at lifting one’s feelings as Haydn’s music can be.

The obvious thing to do was to end this post with a link to the first symphony. However, number six is one of my all-time favourites among the ones I know already. The work is subtitled “Morning” and the opening of the first movement paints an enchanting picture of the sun rising – followed by a dawn chorus of birds.


26 thoughts on “A Musical Journey

    1. The Creation’s great, isn’t it? Where would we be without it? 🙂

      As for The Surprise, your comment bears out something I almost said in the post but edited out: people tend to confine themselves to listening to the late ones. It’s the “favourite album pub conversation” I mentioned, I think: if a composer writes 11 symphonies (in this case, the “London Symphonies”) people can get their head round them and share their feelings about the music.

  1. I have sung in ‘The Creation’ a few times over the years and it has never failed to move me – I always preferred it to ‘The Messiah’ which seems to have been more popular (although that too is great to sing). As to his symphonies – I always preferred them to Mozart’s – they seem more ‘thoughtful’ and much deeper to me.

  2. Thank you for directing my attention to Haydn. What a treasure. My music education is very limited. Your music suggestions are remedying that!

  3. I think he once said “Everything before number 92 is for nothing.” or words to that effect. He felt his work went to higher level after his two journeys to England where he spent a total of about three and a half years, and was influenced by G F Handel. It’s hard to imagine that journey today, from the Esterhazy palace on the Hungarian border across Europe to Calais by horse drawn coach on muddy roads and then across rough sea to England under sail.

    1. Interesting that his own comment about his own work should be so wide of the mark! I suppose artists are notoriously bad judges of their own work. Words spoken from “cloud nine” perhaps, after his English experience?

      Another thing, he wouldn’t of course have had the benefit of recording to make assessments like that. What would he have said if he could have played a CD of his 6th, for example?

  4. My knowledge of Haydn’s music is woefully inadequate. I am inspired to learn more, however, after listening to the 6th symphony you graciously provided in this post. Quite lovely. Thanks for sharing it, as well as your insight on Haydn.

  5. Interesting: to set high goals (lists of) – as a lot of people do, me included. Not necessarily to work them all off, but to have a structure (maybe). Being of a butterfly-nature I then see another flower and flutter away – though I might return.

  6. I absolutely love this post, starting from the very first line: “I’ve detected a trait in myself over the years – a tendency to set what are for me pointless, possibly unachievable goals,” and if this isn’t a life lesson, I don’t know what is: “The aim isn’t to get to 104: it’s to hopefully fall in love with a few pieces of music I don’t yet know.” Amen to that!

  7. I did the Haydn marathon a few years back. So it is doable! And well worth doing! If you do one a week, that means two years. Pretty manageable, I would think. The great thing about this adventure is tracing and hearing the development from work to work. And you really feel like you are retracing an entire human life.

    On the other hand, the numbering of the Haydn symphonies is not faultless. Many of the numbers are the creation of Robbins Landon. So, for example, no. 29 is not necessarily the next symphony he wrote after finishing no. 28. And remember, depending on who you ask, there as many as 108 symphonies!

    Good luck on the journey.

    1. Thank you. It is doable, isn’t it? I must say, I’m doing more than one a week. One thing which inspired me was the thought that people tend to focus on the London symphonies. You know how music, even great music, doesn’t necessarily grip you personally? Well the London symphonies haven’t gripped me yet. However, I kept -almost by accident- finding myself listening to the early ones and finding them quite enchanting. There was clearly a voyage of discovery to be made.

      There was also, lurking deep down somewhere, the experience of listening to some Haydn and reading some of Robbins Landon years ago as a music student. Getting to know Haydn better has been on my “to do” list for a long time.

      It is often said that if you spot an innovation in a Beethoven symphony you’ll find, with a bit of research, that Haydn did it first (OK, with a lawn roller rather than a steam roller). I’m looking forward to spotting such things on the way.

      As for numbering, apparently even which of the early ones is No 1 is open to debate.

      1. Yes, I too, find some of the early symphonies the most interesting and experimental. Many of my favourites come in the range 20-60. And you are absolutely right about the Beethoven-Haydn nexus. Just last I night I listened to Haydn No. 102 and thought how much it was like a Beethoven symphony in waiting!

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