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.


9 thoughts on “Listening to Haydn

  1. Very beautiful. I rather think I would have enjoyed it more without seeing the players as I found some of their ‘antics’ a bit disconcerting. I agree about the sunrise and the birds.

  2. sackerson: I’m so glad you stopped by over my way today, as it reminded me of your blog, as well! I’ve passed on an alert to your present and upcoming Haydn posts to an online group in which I participate from time to time, classical music lovers all. If I recall correctly, the moderator of the group, Brian,
    also undertook listening to all of the Haydn symphonies–it’s he who pointed me toward the sturm and drang group of symphonies. I love your observation about the double bass and now must “return the favor” in going back to Haydn as you noted over my way you might to Bach. Here, by the way, is a link to the classical music group site, if of interest:

  3. A few years back I also listened to all the Haydn symphonies in numerical order. I did it over about two years. My aim was to sense the development. Most of us know some of the late Haydn symphonies, maybe one or two famous ones from the middle of his career and, if any of the early ones, perhaps the morning, midday and evening series (nos 6-8). I wanted to overcome my own typically potted knowledge. Haydn is widely regarded as the “father of the symphony” and if you survey his 104 examples you do see how the form gradually took on its modern features. It was also an interesting challenge to find recordings for a handful of quite obscure symphonies in the 20s and 30s (and I am a little fussy about recordings!). There are now several sets of complete recordings but that didn’t seem to be the case at the time. I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  4. And what a fine performance that is you linked.

    BTW, the Italian period-instrument orchestra Il Giardino Armonico is in the process of performing and recording all the Haydn symphonies in a project that will culminate in 2032, the 300th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The four discs so far released are excellent. For more info see:

  5. One final observation on the video: I am not sure why Stephen Isserlis is sitting with his back to the audience. Surely he could lead just as well from the first desk of the cellos. And does he really need a page-turner!?! That said, it is beautifully played.

    1. It’s a bold and commendable experiment having a cellist instead of a conductor but I’m not sure it works 100%. It’s such a good performance though, in so many ways.

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