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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 1

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

In 2009 the musical world marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn. Haydn’s contribution to the classical mainstream is well-known and widely acknowledged; his symphonies, string quartets and choral music are among the most regularly-performed work in the European canon.

But ironically, Haydn’s vast - and I mean VAST - output is mostly little-known. Like so many other big names in the business (Bach, Handel, even Mozart and Beethoven), his fame rests on a few often-repeated works, while the true scope of his achievements is little celebrated. Haydn’s complete work list in the print version of the 2000 edition of Grove runs to sixty close-typed pages. The symphonies, quartets and choral works make up just a fraction of that.

What follows is the first part of a fifteen-part series I presented over four years on Keys To Music, from 2009 to 2012. The plan was to survey all of Haydn’s known symphonies in as close to chronological order as I could manage, and to include an extract from every one of them, something I could do easily given the ABC’s sound library resources at the time. In reworking this series of GRAHAM’S MUSIC, I am dependent on recordings others have uploaded to YouTube, so it’s possible not every symphony will be illustrated with a sound file. But I’m pretty sure all of them will be mentioned!


The Symphonies for Count Morzin: "A", 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 18, 27, 32 and 37 (1757-60)

In this post we embark on an ambitious undertaking, in which we will cast our eyes over a very large body of music. The composer in question is Joseph Haydn, who lived from 1732 to 1809. During his long and productive life Haydn wrote a truly staggering amount of very fine music, some of which ranks among the greatest gems of western art. In this series of posts we're going to look at what is perhaps the core of his music-making: his symphonies.

Over nearly forty years, Haydn produced no less than 106 symphonies. There are the 104 symphonies in the traditional numbering assigned to them by Eusebius Mandyczewski in 1908, plus there were two other early symphonies, written around the time of Haydn’s first essays in the form, discovered more recently. These are usually called symphonies “A” and “B”. A fragment of another symphony has survived and there are probably others which have been lost.

In recent decades much has been discovered about the dating of Haydn's symphonies and what is certain is that Mandyczewski's numbering, universally used today to help in identifying the symphonies, is definitely not chronological, especially in the lower numbers. In this survey I am going to be guided by a listing devised in 1990 by the musicologist James Webster. Webster's division of the symphonies into fifteen chronological groups will be the backbone of this series, along with his article on Haydn's orchestral music in Grove.

Haydn's earliest symphonies date from his period in the service as Director of Music at the court of Count Morzin, a post he took up probably in 1757 when he was 25. Which Count Morzin employed him is open to question; the earliest sources simply state that he was hired by a “Count Morzin”, but as the title was hereditary, it’s unclear whether the composer was engaged by the reigning Count, Karl Joseph Franz Morzin (as proposed by James Webster), or by his son Ferdinand Maximilian Franz Morzin (as maintained by Haydn scholar HC Robbins Landon).

The Morzin family maintained two properties, one in Vienna where they spent the winter, and an estate in Bohemia where they spent the summer. The musical establishment was small but professional, and for this band Haydn composed his earliest symphonies between about 1757 and 1760. (The string section comprised six to eight violins, one or two violas, a cello and a bass.) Symphony “A” [listen] was definitely composed during this time.

The Morzins' Bohemian property at Dolní Lukavice

The other symphonies now thought to have been written at this time are those traditionally numbered as 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, 11, 18, 27, 32 and 37.

Late in life Haydn believed the early D major symphony traditionally called no 1 was in fact his first. Like many of the early symphonies it's in three movements along the lines of the Italian overture: fast-slow-fast. Its finale is typical of symphonies of the period: sprightly, in 3/8 time, and lighter in character than the opening movement. [listen]

The usual orchestral line-up for Haydn's early symphonies was the standard European court orchestra of the time: strings plus two oboes and two horns. A bassoon probably doubled the bass line of the strings from time to time. Occasionally one or both of the oboes would double on flute, and occasionally trumpets and timpani were added, but the oboes, horns and strings line up was the basis for most of the early symphonies. Opinion is strongly divided as to whether or not Haydn used a continuo instrument (such as a harpsichord) in the early symphonies.

In the slow movements the winds and horns were usually silent, leaving the strings on their own. The slow movement of Symphony no 2 is a good example of this. It's also puts to rest the persistent myth that Haydn's early slow movements are boring. They're often played in such a way, even today, by performers who make them sound boring, but when played with proper phrasing and in appropriate tempos, they come alive as little gems, often full of wit and delightful turns. No 2's slow movement is a gentle perpetual motion for the violins - all in unison - over a rather cheeky walking bassline. [listen]

As I said before, Haydn's earliest symphonies are in three movements, without the minuet and trio movement between the slow movement and finale which later became standard. However Symphony no 4 has as its finale a movement marked to be played in the tempo of a minuet. As Haydn wrote it in 3/8 rather than 3/4, the conventions of the time would dictate that this minuet is a bit of brisk side. [listen]

One of the things I was taught as a student was that Haydn's symphonies were often played in church and that you could always tell which ones these were because they are the ones which start with a slow movement. A symphony like this was called a sinfonia da chiesa (church symphony). The facts, as usual, are far less watertight. It seems some of Haydn's symphonies were played in church, either as separate movements or even complete, but we now know that symphonies with fast opening movements were often played as well; those with slow first movements were no more or less "sacred" than any of the others.

The fact remains that a number of Haydn's early symphonies start with slow movements, and no 5 in A is the first we encounter. Its opening movement is sublimely beautiful, with hair-raisingly exposed high parts for the horns. The oboes, in contrast, have very little to do at all in this movement.

No 5 is without doubt one of my favourite Haydn symphonies. The bouncy second movement is delightful from start to finish; the whole thing is a gem. [listen]

Guttenbrun: Joseph Haydn as he may have looked c. 1770 (painted 1791-92)

The next symphony in the traditional sequence which is thought to have been written for the Morzin court is no 10. The first movement suggests the early symphonies of Mozart (still some years off when this was written, of course) in the Allegro rather than Presto opening and the slower rate of harmonic change. There's an elegance here rather than a need to dazzle or impress. [listen]

Symphony no 11 in E flat shares a couple of interesting features with Symphony no 5 (the one with the high horns). No 11 also opens with a slow movement, and both symphonies are in a four movement structure, made possible by the addition of a minuet movement before the finale. The structure is an unusual one - slow-fast-minuet-fast - a structure which Haydn didn't use very often. The minuet movement of Symphony no 11 is in 3/4, as would be expected, so the tempo is rather more danceable than the finale of Symphony no 4 (which was in 3/8). The central trio section dispenses with the oboes and horns, leaving it to the strings alone. The trio also has a cheeky off-beat part for the second violins. Haydn is never content to be conventional, always seeking some new device of effect to charm the ear. [listen]

Haydn provides yet another structure for the movements in his Symphony no 18. There are only three movements, in the pattern slow-fast-minuet. The central fast movement, being the symphony's only fast movement, is marked Allegro molto, an indication which requires more speed, drive and energy than a plain "Allegro" would suggest. [listen]

Three more symphonies are regarded by scholars today as coming from the late 1750s when Haydn was working for Count Morzin, namely nos 27, 32 and 37. Their relatively high numbering in the traditional sequence is distracting, but they do exhibit all the characteristics of the works I've already mentioned. No 27 is in the more usual fast-slow-fast three movement structure, but its middle movement has some unusual characteristics. It bears the tempo marking "Andante siciliano". It's characterised by a dotted, lilting feeling in the melody, and here's it's accompanied by an incessantly burbling second violin part, with pizzicato viola, cello and bass. It's a delicate, understated little masterpiece. [listen]

Symphony no 32 is in C major, and C major was one of the keys in which trumpets and timpani worked well in the instruments of the mid-18th century. No 32 is, in all likelihood, the first of Haydn's symphonies to add trumpets and timpani to the usual oboes, horns and strings. The "festive C major" sound is a characteristic feature of Haydn's C major symphonies with trumpets and timpani, something enhanced in this case by the use of high horns in C.

The question arises as to whether or not Morzin had trumpets and timpani available to play in this work, but scholars believe that no 32 does in all likelihood date from this period. Either players were brought in for a special occasion or the work was written to be played somewhere else. It's still a great piece, wherever it was played.

The structure of no 32 shows Haydn yet again experimenting with the order of movements. The minuet and trio comes second, and the slow movement third, before the fast fourth movement. [listen]

Interestingly, the remaining symphony nowadays associated with the Morzin period, no 37, does the same. It too is in C major and the material has survived with trumpet and timpani parts. There is reason to suspect, however, that the trumpet and timpani parts are later additions, and the work is often played (as it is in the recording linked below) without them. James Webster describes the inventive first movement of no 37 as being "a fantastic farrago of distinct but related motives, whose shapes and formal functions constantly change". It certainly reflects the complete freedom Haydn exercised in writing symphonies for the small but skilled ensemble he directed for Count Morzin. [listen]

In 1760 Haydn left the Morzin establishment and possibly freelanced briefly before taking up the post of Vice-Kapellmeister to the Esterházy court. The few years he had worked for Morzin showed him eager to develop as a symphonic composer, as well as in almost every other type of composition. The sheer variety in the Morzin period symphonies alone is testimony to that; of course, he was to do far more with the symphony in the following decades than anyone could ever have imagined in 1760. He didn't invent the symphony, but what he did for the form makes the nickname "father of the symphony" absolutely appropriate.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in November, 2009.

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