Listening to Haydn (2)

It would be easy, writing about Haydn symphonies, to dwell on aspects of their musical structure or even the anecdotes relating to them (the famous story behind the “Farewell” symphony springs to mind). That is not what I want to do. I am simply setting out to present those symphonies which, having heard them once, made me want to listen to them again and again! In my last post, I focused on Symphony No 6. Numbers 7 and 8 are on my listening list, too. I can’t stress enough that there may be others in between that will bowl me over on a different day but after number 8, the next symphony I found really engaging on first hearing and want to draw attention to is number 19.

It would be wrong for me to make assumptions about what readers might already know about classical music. Hopefully, a few people might read this who know very little.  With that in mind I want to deal with the basics in this post and take a moment to write about what a symphony actually is.

Most symphonies consist of four movements. It’s an interesting concept, the movement. Pieces of music in other genres tend to consist of a single span of sound. The only genres I can think of offhand where several separate pieces routinely make up a whole are classical music and the stage musical.

The movements of a classical piece are not unlike the acts of a play. For example, a slow movement may be written to be heard in the context of the fast movement that precedes it and so on. The different moods of the movements in a work set up a musical narrative. In Symphony 19, the first movement, in a bright major key, is followed by a darker second movement, written in a minor key.

As the symphony evolved, composers settled on the convention of writing four movements: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a dance movement (a minuet) and a “finale”. It’s a useful convention, as it prompts the composer to include everything that the piece needs to have to be considered a “symphony”. Symphony 19 was an early symphony and comprised of only three movements.

A symphony is, literally, a “sounding together”. However, by the time the four movement pattern was established it had become far more than that. A classical symphony, like a Shakespeare play, aims to embrace the whole breadth of human experience.

To generalize in what I hope is a useful way, the first movement, the most involved, combines depth of feeling with complexity of thought. The second, a slow movement, tends to focus on the emotional. The third, a dance, focuses on the physical. The fourth, usually fast, brings the work to an affirmative conclusion. This is obviously too simple: I’m trying to reduce the symphony to a formula, such as a detective writer might resort to and like a good book, a good symphony will obviously exceed the boundaries of any  formula. Incidentally, of the four, my description of the fourth movement is the least helpful. The fourth is often considered the hardest to write, too: composers talk of the “fourth movement problem”. A composer of symphonies has to find his or her own way of solving it, sometimes contriving to deny the listener the affirmation they expect.




Listening to Haydn

A couple of weeks ago I finally finished doing something I’ve been doing for some time. I’d set out a couple of years ago to listen to all the 107 (and a quarter) symphonies written by Joseph Haydn. I’d listened to about ten of them before I started. I liked one of these very much indeed and was motivated partly by the thought that I might find a few more that really captured my imagination. Listening to music isn’t that hard: we find ourselves doing it these days most days whether we like it or not, so it wasn’t exactly climbing all the Munros or swimming the channel.

Popular wisdom has it that the later symphonies (the Paris (82-87) and London symphonies (93-104)) are the “best”. This was another motivating factor for me. The one I liked most of those I knew was an early symphony: No 6 was the first one Haydn wrote for Prince Esterhazy, the aristocrat who employed Haydn for most of his working life. I soon discovered there were plenty more earlier symphonies worth listening to. No 6, in parts, used instruments in a soloistic way reminiscent of the baroque concerto grosso. I think its a shame that as the classical style developed, composers did this less and less. The combination of multiple soloists and orchestra makes for a rich texture. As a double bass player, I was ashamed to discover that I didn’t know what great solo double bass moments Haydn had incorporated into several of the symphonies. I also learned that Haydn had written a double bass concerto which has been lost. Judging by the double bass writing in the symphonies, that could represent the loss of what might arguably have been the greatest piece of double bass music in the repertoire for that instrument.

Symphony No 6 (Le Matin) begins with a magical evocation of the dawn. Haydn achieves with a few notes and the modest forces of the Esterhazy orchestra what Ravel, in Daphnis and Chloe, achieved with the help of every trick in the modern orchestration book. The way the opening puts one in mind of the rising sun is uncanny. If you’re wondering if that is indeed what you’ve just heard, the music that follows leaves you in no doubt. The birds start to sing:

I did come across several more of the symphonies that I especially liked – so, mission accomplished. I’m going to deal with these in a series of separate posts. I also discovered that the more I listened to Haydn symphonies, the more I wanted to listen again to other ones that had not appealed to me quite so much first time round.