Haydn’s on- let’s cancel the concert and rehearse

If the world was a reasonable place, and our society was one that had a well-rounded sense of values, then all orchestras could rehearse Haydn to their heart’s content.

Haydn’s music is so spectacularly good, so amazingly fresh, so outrageously original, so endlessly surprising, so completely unpredictable, that when one is working on it at even a respectable level, it’s hard to imagine why you’d ever want to bother with another composer.

In fact, Haydn’s music is really almost too good to perform. In any case, it is probably too healthy to perform.

Healthy? There is nothing better for an orchestra’s playing that to rehearse a Haydn symphony (and the same is very much true for string quartets). This is so true that having to actually work toward a performance begins to get in the way. How wonderfully all the world’s orchestras would play if only our governments would pay for us to rehearse one Haydn symphony each year for as long as we felt it was productive.

We’ve been working very hard on Haydn 99 with the Surrey Mozart Players this week. The orchestra is on great form. The players came in to the first rehearsal incredibly well prepared, and read the piece brilliantly. Nonetheless, the more we work on it the more I think we wish we had ten more rehearsals instead of just two. The rest of the program consists of two of my very favourite pieces of all time, yet I’d happily cancel them both (or even cancel the entire concert) just to have the luxury of digging in to this piece as deeply as possible.

What is fascinating about this music is that the more work you put in to it, and the better you play it, the more obvious it is to everyone in the room that we could do more on it. At the first rehearsal it feels like we’ve hardly got to worry about anything with the piece- it is all idiomatic, and accessible, at the second rehearsal, I’m just sort of figuring out how far we could go with the piece with the benefit of the score, and at the third rehearsal the whole band seems to be realizing just how much there is to work on. Just about the time you have to go onstage and perform, everyone seems to know how much work there is still to do. I’ve written before on how studying a Mahler symphony can feel like taking the best conducting lesson ever- rehearsing a Haydn symphony in detail feels like the best orchestra-ing lesson ever.

Just think- after this week, I only have 91 numbered Haydn symphonies left to perform! And I’d happily forsake performing any of them, if only the world would let me really freakin’ rehearse them.

Is it possible for some music to be too perfect to waste on an audience? Maybe we should make the audience come to the rehearsals so they can begin to know what it is they’re hearing in the concert.

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

PS- When I was 19 (and completely stupid), I thought Haydn’s music was boring crap, when I was 25 I thought it was pretty great, now I think it is mind-shatteringly brilliant. How will I feel about it at 65?    


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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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5 comments on “Haydn’s on- let’s cancel the concert and rehearse”

  1. Zoltan

    Well, I’m 26 and yes, I find it a bit boring. There’s just so much other music that fascinates me more at the moment!
    The same with most of Mozart: it doesn’t have that existential “angst” I wish to hear.
    Must be the age.
    I hope it is.

  2. Kenneth Woods

    Hi Zoltan
    I think, if you’re lucky enough to hear or particpate in some good performances, you’ll come around enthusiastically.
    I find it a comfort to know that one does get some bennefit out of getting older.
    The other good news is that I don’t like music I loved at 19 any less- one’s athletic skills my decline with age, but one’s capacity to love and understand music can keep expanding without limit.
    Thanks for the note
    PS- Existantial angst! Try the slow movement of the Mozart Piano Concerto No 23 in A Major, K 488 (which, by the way, is on the same program as the Haydn this week). I recomend Ivan Moravec’s recording (orchestra is a little generic but the piano playing is divine), which is on iTunes. Just about Mozart’s only foray into F-sharp minor, it is as dark night of the soul as you can possibly get- as close to the music of pure loneliness as I know of.

  3. David Hoose

    Amen to Ken’s praise of Haydn. Yet I sympathize with Zoltan’s admittedly youthful observation. Haydn’s music really is, in so many ways, adult music, music whose subtleties and sophistication can simpy elude many people who may be used to or wanting more dramatic surfaces. It certainly was lost on me when I played my first Haydn symphony (86, I believe) so many years ago. It all seemed hopelessly simple and, well, as Zoltan said, boring.

    But I was then fortunate enough to begin to get to know the Haydn symphonies by exploring the earlier music, like 44, 47, 48, 49, 51, 52, 59, 64, 68, even up into the 70s. Here the music is less subtle, more overt in its expression, more black and white in its emotions (sort of like Shostakovich, another composer whose blunt music and direct emotions are appealing to young people), and the compositional methods are easier to hear and grasp. It was viscerally thrilling music, and even today I cannot imagine a more exciting and perfect piece than 44 (Trauer) or 47, for instance.

    I’m not sure that I would ever have gotten hooked on every note of Haydn if what I ever heard was only the late music. But, after digging into the symphonies in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the immense subtleties, the exquisite intrigue, and the profound and generous heart of the later works began to reveal themselves.

    I’d liken the earlier works, without one bit of condescension, to a ’57 Chevy. The ride’s exciting, the lines are thrilling, but, look under the hood and even I think I could understand how it works. Cool. But the later symphonies (like 99 that Ken is working on now, or 88, that I’m doing now for the nth time) are a different matter. They’re more like a Porsche or Maserati. Again, a thriling ride, amazing lines, but an engine that none us could understand. In fact, its mechanics are so sophisticated that we can even forget that there is an engine–any engine–beneath the hood. So smooth, so quiet, and effortless seeming. The inexplicably complicated engine and mechanism can fool you into thinking nothing’s going on at all. But, of course, we’re wrong.

    And that’s the problem some people have with those late Haydn symphonies. So much is going on, the surprises are at every turn, the phrasing seems so effortlessly flexible, and the unexpected events are so perfectly integrated into the musical rhetoric–yet the unassuming listener can miss most everything that’s going. It’s too subtle and sophisticated, sort of like inside jokes told among closest friends. This music some, some of the most complex I know, can come across as simple or even banal. Quite the opposite is the case.

    So, I’d recommend that anyone who doesn’t know (or care for) Haydn avoid listening to the symphonies between 88 and 104 until they’ve dug into the more rough-hewn, hardy and bracing symphones from what are referred to as his “Sturm und Drang” period. Those are like sledding down a steep hill, in the dark, and with trees all around. Wheee! Try 49, 44, or even 45, the “Farewell.” Often played and heard as a joke, it’s really a pathos-filled (ah, the thing Zoltan’s hunting for) outcry, and its anger-turned-to-sadness breaks my heart every time. From these works, the doors to the later pieces may open.

    Now, having played a bunch of the symphonies, having conducted about 25 of them, along with the two oratorios, a couple of operas and four or five of the masses, as well as knowing, in some way or another, all the symphonies, I’d say that there’s not a single symphony without at least one sensational movement, and that most of them are fabulous throughout. And though Zoltan doesn’t seem to care about the distinction, since Mozart doesn’t get to him, either, I’d say that the Haydn symphonies, as a lot, are far richer and more necessary than any of the Mozart symphonies (the Jupiter excepted). In fact, the Jupiter is the only Mozart symphony that’s even on the level of the best of the Haydn symphonies. Now, those are fighting words for a lot of people, though they shouldn’t be, since I’ll give Mozart the operas and piano concertos (and the clarinet concerto), areas where Haydn didn’t thrive.

    As to that Haydn Symphony No. 86 in D that I found so boring so long ago? It’s among my favorites today. Saying that it has a noble and quirky first movement, a truly demented slow movement, a slightly weird minuet and a hilarious last movement doesn’t do it any justice. But those are the headlines that I missed in my impatient youth. And if I couldn’t read the headlines, how could I understand the article beneath?

    As a musician friend of mine says, “When a book and a head collide, and the sound is hollow, seldom is the book that’s making that sound.” Keep going, Zoltan. It’ll come to you, and you’ll be thrilled!

    David Hoose

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