Listening to Haydn (5)

There is an argument to be had as to how many symphonies Josef Haydn wrote. There are 104 numbered symphonies but Anthony von Hoboken, who catalogued Haydn’s works and broke them down into categories, included a few other works in the “symphony” category, notably two works known as Symphony A and Symphony B and a Sinfonia Concertante in Bb, for violin, cello, oboe, bassoon and orchestra. It was composed in England in 1792, during the period when Haydn was working on the late symphonies known as the London Symphonies.

A sinfonia concertante is essentially a cross between a concerto (usually for one soloist and orchestra) and a symphony (usually for orchestra alone). It employs two or more soloists and resembles the Baroque form, the concerto grosso. Several of my favourite Haydn symphonies include strong concertante elements (for example, No. 6 and No. 31, which I included in earlier posts). I was not at all surprised to find myself drawn to this work and to find myself listening to it again and again. Hoboken had the right idea, I think. As for how many symphonies Haydn wrote, does it matter? Do you include the single movement often used as an overture to The Fisherwomen? Lists of symphonies by Schubert and Borodin include incomplete,  two-movement works. It’s a bit like counting the planets. Should Pluto have been demoted? How many rocks of a similar size are out there?



Listening to Haydn (3)

Like Symphony No 6, Haydn’s Symphony No 31 (“The Hornsignal”) often uses instruments in a soloistic way. It is a very warm piece, written soon after the recruitment of two new horn players to the Esterharzy orchestra. It may be fanciful, but it has an almost conversational feel, I think, as if the new players are being welcomed by the orchestra. Of the works of Haydn I know, this symphony is really one of my favourites.

In the last Haydn post, I wrote about the different movements in a symphony. In The Hornsignal the fourth movement is very like a conventional second movement. Towards the end Haydn, as if aware of the problem he is creating for himself, stops composing more lyrical music, turns up the volume and speeds things up a bit (Beethoven, later,  did something similar if on a bigger scale at the end of his 9th Symphony). He also brings back the “horn signals” that began the work, which begs the question, why does repeating music from the start of a work make us think we’re approaching the end?

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.

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.