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.