A Musical Mount Everest: 36 Hours and 104 Symphonies With Joseph Haydn

One of the most daunting tasks in classical music is navigating the symphonic output of Joseph Haydn, the so-called “father” of the symphony. For most composers, the symphony is the most august, serious, philosophical statement one can make in music. A symphony is like a four-act play, with each act/movement capturing something of the struggle of being human, or of contemplating the divine. Even a light-hearted symphony is written ‘big,’ for the gargantuan modern symphony orchestra (often over one hundred players strong) and made to sound like the entire universe is singing. For this reason, many composers wait until middle-age to tackle a symphony, if only because the greatest composers are in their rear-view mirror, seeming hoarding the best themes, structures, and innovations. 

Even Beethoven, considered the greatest of all symphonists, began in the shadow of Haydn and Mozart—no mean predecessors! His first symphony sounds like a good-natured homage to the older master, though he occasionally lets his more Romantic side slip. Beethoven found his feet with the Second Symphony, and would revolutionize the form entirely in the Third (the “Eroica”). Yet despite or because of this new vision, the form seems to have cost him enormous intellectual effort, and he stopped at nine, whereas he wrote thirty-two piano sonatas and seventeen string quartets. By and large, the composers that followed have taken nine as the limit of symphonic achievement, stopping long before or coming to a rest with a titanic Ninth symphony. The example of Gustav Mahler is the most famous example: he despaired of reaching his own ninth because only death would lie beyond. However, he thought to cheat fate by writing a Tenth Symphony and calling it, instead, “The Song of the Earth,” to see if God or the Devil noticed. Having survived this trial, he then set about writing his Tenth…and died before its completion. That seemed to be the final word on the subject until Shostakovich cheekily wrote fifteen symphonies, while the modern Finnish composer, Leif Segerstam, is up to 309 as of this year!

Segerstam perhaps looked back to the great originator himself, Joseph Haydn, to pose the question: what exactly should a symphony be? Is every symphony by necessity a grandiloquent gesture of sublime catharsis? Or can one be written simply out of fun and the moment? Segerstam’s symphonies are peppered with facetious or outright ridiculous titles, such as “Bleedings for Penciled Sounds,” “Surfing and Clicking,” and “White Lights, No Snow, but the Show goes on…” In a way, this reflects Haydn’s own approach to composition, which wasn’t necessarily the result of brooding on life’s mysteries, but a workaday commission for a royal patron. Early in his career, Haydn gained the patronage of the musically inclined Esterhazy family, becoming their official Kapellmeister in 1766 (though he assumed duties as an assistant even earlier). As the resident music master, Haydn was expected to write to order—a symphony for Tuesday, an opera for Saturday, etc. As his official contract stated,

At the command of His Serene Highness [Haydn] is required to compose such music as His Serene Highness may require of him. Such compositions are not to be communicated to any person, nor copied, but remain the property of His Serene Highness, and without the knowledge and permission of His Serene Highness, he is not to compose for any person…in the morning and the afternoon in the antechamber [Haydn] will be announced and will await the decision of His Serene Highness whether there should be music; and having received the order, will inform the other musicians, and not only appear himself punctually at the appointed time but also ensure that the rest appear, and should a musician either come late for the music or even be absent, he will take his name.

That, of course, is only a small portion of his tremendous duties and responsibilities, but as you can imagine, it left little time for quibbling or revision. The Grand Duke adored music and wanted it as often as possible, spurring Haydn to write symphony after symphony, so many that he never bothered to number them or even keep track of them (he may have been hard pressed to identify some of his own music!). While this might have daunted many composers, or driven them into writing and re-writing the same clichés, Haydn found the strictures inspiring. He had no wants, no worries about bills or the future, so he could devote every minute of his day to composition and performance. Compare this to poor Mozart, who, failing to get equal patronage, had to run about performing here and there and selling whatever he could to make the rent. Of course, even he managed to write over 40 of them, some of them the finest in the entire repertoire (18th century composers were masters of multi-tasking!).

Over the decades, in the relative solitude of Esterhaza, the family estate, Haydn began tinkering with symphonic form and establishing what has become the conventional template of four movements:  introduction, slow movement, minuet/scherzo, finale. Originally a modest affair, more an opera overture with a few dances inserted for good measure, Haydn made it a veritable buffet of high spirits, drama, intrigue, merriment, and a touch of philosophy. He soon amassed some of the greatest orchestral music in existence, but sadly, as per his contract, he could share it with no one; it remained the family’s exclusive property. However, his fame soon spread far and wide, and impresarios in Paris and London were begging for new symphonies. Indeed, one of his orchestral members absconded to Paris and brought several of Haydn’s compositions with him, and even published the works to pave his way (and was not prompt in sharing the proceeds with Haydn!). At some point, the contract’s terms were relaxed and Haydn was allowed to write for other markets, and once his employer died and his services were no longer required, he went on to write some of his grandest symphonies for the music-mad public of London.

Though he died a famous man in Vienna, most of his works were forgotten, buried in the vaults of Esterhaza, doomed to never see the light of performance. Thank goodness for the 20th century, with its mania for completion and historical perspective. With the rise of recorded music, particularly the LP and later the CD, it became possible and (relatively) affordable to record everything a composer wrote (as well as much of what they didn’t!). Still, that remained a very daunting task in the case of composers who wrote for their bread: Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn, Boccherini, Mozart, etc., whose works number in the hundreds or thousands. Yet the most Quixotic venture of all had to be recording Haydn’s complete symphonies, many of which had never been heard of performed since the heyday of the American Revolution! Common sense would tell us that the greatest works survived and the dross was forgotten; would such an undertaking even be worth the effort? Many of his symphonies, such as the grand “London” Symphonies (nos.93-104) and the famed “Paris” Symphonies (nos.82-87) remained played throughout the world, and occasionally, a straggler like No. 26, 44, 88, or even the early “Times of Day” trio, Nos.6, 7, and 8, would get an outing. But who knew what the teen symphonies sounded like, much less the forbidding gap of the 50’s and 60’s, from which (almost) no note had survived the 18th century!

One of the pioneers in traversing this musical no-man’s land was the legendary Hungarian conductor, Antal Dorati. An interpreter equally at home with modernist composers such as Bartok and their classical forbearers, he always held a special fondness for Haydn, and embarked upon a recording venture to document every Esterhazy symphony, including a few composed before and after Haydn’s employment. Instead of hiring the London or Vienna Symphony, Dorati turned to a second-string band of players, the Philharmonia Hungarica, composed of Hungarian expatriates who fled their country after the Soviet Invasion of in 1956. Dorati whipped them into fine fettle for this enterprise, creating a distinctive sound that seems to embody the jocular tone of Haydn. The strings have a delicious, golden sheen that makes these early works sing, and the winds are crisp and frothy, capturing the gorgeous solos that Haydn distributed to his first-class Esterhazy players. The recordings, too, made between the late 60’s and mid 70’s, sound full-bodied and lush, yet with the faintest veneer of an earlier sonic age (which is part of their charm).

Though these performances can now sound dated, since they reflected older performance norms which have been supplanted by the period performance enthusiasts (notably in the slower speeds for the third-movement menuets), they play every note with obvious affection, making even the most conventional movement seem freshly composed. We have to remember, after all, that the small audience of the Esterhazy estate merely wanted a day’s amusement, and cared little if Symphony No. 34, say, sounded too much like No. 56. What mattered was that the music danced, the spirit soared, and everyone could forget their cares in the sublime, transformative experience of music. If this is the case, then Dorati and his band continue to fit the bill. However, there are many other recordings of the individual symphonies to choose from, though only one other complete recording by Adam Fisher and the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra (which remains harder to find).

Now for the music itself: where to start amidst 104 symphonies spread over 7 or 8 boxed sets, or 36 and a-half-hours of music? Should you start with No.1 and listen straight through to No.104? Haydn certainly never meant his music to create a chronological argument, so perhaps this isn’t the best way to hear his symphonic canon. Instead, it’s probably easier to start with the more popular works (typically, the later ones) and work your way back, picking through the highlights of each set. I do want to make the bold claim that there is not a single dud among the lot. Every symphony ‘sounds’ and has its individual charms and pleasures which amply rewards the time spent—or lost—listening to it. Best of all, each symphony (particularly so, with the earlier ones) is only 15-30 minutes long, so it’s not all that much of an investment. Below is my crib sheet offering a few landmarks to chart your path through the daunting symphonic terrain. Of course, unlike Mount Everest, there is nothing difficult about Haydn; he offers only charm, amusement, and sheer beauty along the way. There are no dense symphonic arguments or challenging cacophony, at least not by 21st century standards. However, bear in mind that no one was composing symphonies like this, at least not until Mozart came along, and learning from Haydn’s example, began writing his revolutionary range of late symphonies, Nos.36-41 (which Haydn seems to have been influenced by in turn).


No.4 in D: This jolly little three-movement symphony contains a creepy, enigmatic Andante in the middle. Unlike the other symphonies of this period, the slow music offers little in the way of consolation, but is remarkably disturbing in its relative calm. It gets happier as it goes, but the darkness returns, making it sound like part of a dramatic opera scena that escaped into a symphony.

Nos. 6-8 in D, C, and G: These are early programmatic symphonies, but only just: they depict three times of day, “Morning,” “Noon” and “Night,” though you might be hard-pressed to see anything too descriptive in these jolly, bubbling scores. The highlight is No.6, with its chattering flutes and solos for all kinds of instruments—including the double bass in the humorous menuet.

No.13 in D: A bigger-boned four-movement symphony with trumpets and drums, this symphony stands out as Haydn flexing his muscles. The highlight is the gorgeous slow movement with a bona fide cello solo, almost like the middle movement of a lost cello concerto.

No.22 in E, “The Philosopher”: one of the more famous early works, hence its subtitle. It opens with a walking bass and—amazingly for this period—a pair of English horns! It’s a novel musical effect, and does indeed sound like a humorously eccentric philosopher strolling down the street, brooding about the secrets of heaven and earth—and almost getting hit by a coach in his daydreams. Perhaps that’s the point of the frantic second-movement Presto; either that or he’s late for his teaching assignment!

No.26 in D Minor, “Lamentation”: the first of Haydn’s famous minor-key works, which were relatively rare in the classical period. Possibly tied to religious services, the work opens with a mournful theme which gradually turns more joyous and dance-like. But the lamentation returns, a brooding pall over what should be a happy occasion. The second moment is wistfully happy, like tender memories remembered through tears, while the finale, a minuet, is forceful and dour. Was there a lost fourth movement? Perhaps...lost somewhere in the halls and cabinets of Esterhaza.

No. 31 in D, “Hornsignal”: one of his jolliest, most congenial works, it harkens back to Nos.6-8 in its solos and earthy humor. Indeed, this is a veritable sinfonia concertante, with the French horn placed center stage (though every instrument gets its moment in the sun, especially the flutes and violin—and in the finale, the double bass!). The finale’s variations on a simple, rustic theme seem to point ahead to Schubert’s “Trout” quintet.


No. 39 in G Minor: An early sturm und drang (“storm and stress”) symphony, which reflected the German vogue for sensational, ‘romantic’ dramas with Gothic elements. However, this symphony is primarily good-natured after the hushed, dramatic opening that promises big things. Yet it launches into a very jolly theme that carries us with a few hair-pin turns through the movement.

Nos. 44-49: Though these aren’t a set like the “Paris” or “London” symphonies, they should be. They’re often considered Haydn’s true sturm und drang symphonies, but they’re far more enterprising and innovative than that. They open with No.44 in E minor, a dramatic score that earns the title “Mourning.” It has a very haunting slow movement which sounds all the world like a funeral procession (and I believe was played at Haydn’s funeral). No.45 in F-sharp minor, an odd key for a classical symphony, is justly famous for its finale: after a dramatic introduction, a slow, amiable theme is introduced by the full orchestra, only to be repeated over and over again, but each time with one or two less instruments. Finally, we’re reduced to a single violin sadly sawing away at the theme. It was a hint to his employer that the orchestra badly needed a holiday to visit their loved ones (according to legend, each time an orchestra member dropped out of the finale, he blew out the candle on his music stand and departed).

Nos. 45 and 47 are in major keys, and though they are generally more upbeat, both are full of driving, muscular rhythms and suggest restless energy by a composer eager to take on the world. Then we get to another related pair, No. 48 in c major, subtitled “Maria Theresia,” which is a regal, dramatic affair opening with trumpets and drums. The last is a deeply felt, almost romantic score, No.49 in F minor, subtitled “La Passione.” In many ways, is seems a successor to No.26 with its connection to liturgical music.

No. 51 in B-Flat & No.52 in C minor: No. 51 is a very subtle, concertante score, with solos for horns throughout (particularly in the second movement). It has a driving, exciting first movement with a lot of minor-key fireworks. The slow movement, however, is a bucolic interlude which reminds one of the slow movements of Mozart’s horn concertos (but surpasses them). The remaining movements are full of rococo charm and typical Haydensque good spirits. No. 52 is a commanding minor-key symphony, opening with a portentous theme which must have inspired Mozart’s first minor-key essay, No. 25 in G minor. But like all Haydn’s symphonies, the darkness is quickly swept aside for more charming episodes—yet the threat is always there, like clouds that persistently blacken the sun.

No. 60 in C Major: One of his most original creations, No. 60 is taken from his theater music, and makes a delightful hodge-podge of theatrical hijinks, all played for laughs. Note the finale which imitates an orchestra tuning up in the middle, as if they’ve just realized they were playing out of tune.

Nos. 66-68: A trio of related works that seem to command more respect and poise than their immediate predecessors and successors. These symphonies remind one more of the great works to come (such as the “Paris” symphonies), as each one is full of more developed symphonic thought and some devilishly catchy themes. Listen to the dashing first movement of No.67, which scarcely catches its breath once it gets going. This a glimpse of the Haydn-to-be.

No. 78 in C minor and No, 80 in D minor: These are more gallant sturm und drang symphonies, a bit like Dorian Gray—beautiful from every angle, but hinting at some hidden darkness. The opening of 78 is the most arresting, and it reminds one immediately of Mozart, most specifically the minor-key music of Piano Concertos No. 20 and 24. Yet it, too, devolves into a sunny, chirping theme that almost makes you forget the key—until the staccato theme comes marching back. The symphony also boasts a Mozartian finale, again reminiscent of the brooding finales of 20 and 24. No. 80, on the other hand, seems less threatening and reminds one chiefly of Schubert—his “Tragic” symphony most of all. The darkness seems here chiefly to throw the lightness in greater relief, and the music is utterly charming and like Schubert, full of endless melodies. The slow movement is divine, one of his most inspired creations, and a movement that must have haunted Schubert until he wrote something to top it. A very jolly, almost sing-song finale concludes the piece, worlds away from the minor-key opening.


The “Paris” Symphonies: Nos. 82-87: these need less discussion, since there are numerous recordings of them and you can even find these in the concert hall. The riches of these works are staggering, and finding a single moment to highlight is an exercise in futility. A particularly favorite of mine is the often overlooked No.84 in E-flat major, which is full of heart-felt melody and quiet beauty.

No. 88 in G major: somehow, this missed inclusion with the Paris set, yet it would be the highlight of that set. A stunning symphony which is a true original, in that it quotes Croatian folk songs in the finale, and imitates traditional peasant instruments in the trio of the menuet. The seeds of Kodaly and Bartok lie in this magnificent work.

No 90 in C Major: a powerful, big-boned symphony full of fire and gusto. This seems to look ahead to Beethoven and has the same rhythmic impulse of his First and Second symphonies, and maybe a bit of his Seventh as well. The introduction is particularly arresting, with its explosions of brass that usher in a quiet, dancing theme, which is soon taken up by the entire orchestra in a mad dash.

No. 93 in D Major: Like Symphony No. 90, a symphony of unstoppable energy and ideas. The finale, in particular, is almost frightening in its intensity. Haydn had reinvented what a finale could do here, and set the template for Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler.

After this, we enter the “London” symphonies, some of the most sublime symphonic music of the entire classical period. Again, there are numerous recordings of Nos.93-104, and each one is a gem, full of hidden beauties and endless secrets. Nos.99 and 102 are some of the most beautiful, anticipating the music of Romanticism and showing that Beethoven clearly didn’t emerge from a vacuum.

You can listen to the complete set of Dorati’s Haydn on Spotify, or buy the entire MP3 collection for only $45 on Amazon (the equivalent of 33 cds): https://www.amazon.com/Haydn-Complete-Symphonies-33-CDs/dp/B002C5AY6G/ref=sr_1_1?s=dmusic&ie=UTF8&qid=1480655147&sr=1-1-mp3-albums-bar-strip-0&keywords=haydn+dorati