Haydn mania

May 21, 2009

There are four major musical anniversaries in 2009.  Back in February we marked the 200th birthday of Felix Mendelssohn, a few weeks ago was the 250th anniversary of the death of Handel, and in September we shall celebrate the 350th birthday of Henry Purcell.  But the really big festival, coming up on May 31, will mark 200 years since the death of Franz Joseph Haydn.

Haydn tends to suffer neglect in comparison with his greatest contemporaries (and students), Mozart and Beethoven. The canons of Romanticism, which were foreign to Haydn but which still colour our judgments, specify that a compelling biography or personality are invaluable aids to attaining genuine artistic greatness.  Haydn suffers in this respect: he didn’t have the good fortune to die young like Mozart, nor did he have the imperious personality of Beethoven.  He lived a stable and reasonably happy life in the employ of the Hungarian princes Esterhazy, and was by all accounts an amiable and well-adjusted man.  All he did was write really good music, and lots of it.

He wrote so much music, in fact, that it is difficult to grasp the scale of it.  One cannot help noticing his 104 symphonies.  Throw in nearly 70 string quartets, a comparable number of piano sonatas, and over 40 piano trios, and the man begins to look busy.  Add a dozen operas, a dozen masses, and a handful of oratorios for good measure, not to mention hundreds of compositions in other genres.  He is one of the most prolific composers in history.

Most of his music is not very well known today.  This is partly because he lacked the gift for memorable melody that was such a secure possession of both Mozart and Beethoven, and also partly because the spirit of Haydn’s music is so consistently at odds with our own times.  For all its beauty and expressive range, his music is, generally speaking, restrained, polite, well-proportioned, genial, disciplined, and civil.  It is about as far from rock and roll and jazz as one can get.

Of course, its being at odds with the prevailing spirit is a perfectly good reason to get to know it better, and, in this anniversary year, there is no time like the present.  At the beginning of this year, therefore, I embarked on an ambitious listening project: to listen to all 104 symphonies (2 each week, conveniently enough), the entire set of piano trios and sonatas, the full cycle of string quartets, and as many other pieces as I can get my hands on.

The project is going strong, and thus far has been a steady source of delight and enjoyment.  Those with fewer or different psychological disorders might not feel compelled to cover as much musical ground as me, but it would be a shame to let this anniversary year pass without enjoying at least some of the music of this wonderful composer.


Here are several videos gleaned from the rather slim pickings on YouTube.  First is the finale of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No.33 [online score], played by Khatia Buniatishvili at the 2008 Rubinstein Piano Competition. Alas, she did not win the competition (though might have done so had there been a beauty contest folded in).

This video has Mariss Jansons leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the famous second movement of Symphony No.94, nicknamed “Surprise” [online score].  The surprise is the sudden fortissimo Haydn springs on the listener.  This movement is a theme and variations form.

Finally, here is the first movement of his String Quartet Op.77 No.1 [online score], played by the Fine Arts Quartet:

2 Responses to “Haydn mania”

  1. Giovanni Says:


    happy Feastday.

    I don’t understand why Opera houses never seem to undertake a production of one of Haydn’s operas, while undertaking productions of Operas by very obscure composers. I am sure there would be good audience turnout.

    “…he didn’t have the good fortune of dying young”???!

  2. cburrell Says:

    I have never heard one of Haydn’s operas, although recordings do exist. I fear that they might be mostly opera seria, which not even Handel and Mozart could sufficiently enliven.

    I am, of course, sorry that Mozart died so young, but I expect that his untimely death has contributed something to his mystique.

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