More Haydn

At a late hour, post concert, a few last minute thoughts on Haydn (again!). 

With 104 symphonies to choose from, it would be easy to think that there is such a thing as a “Haydn Symphony.” That is, it musicians and audiences seem to think that there is a general “Haydn Symphony” sound world, that one can refer to when those two words come up. Even more specific is the idea of a “Haydn London Symphony:” here we have a body of works from one, very specific period of his life that we feel even more confident lumping together. 


How impressive is it that when one tests those assumptions about what makes a “Haydn Symphony” against experimental reality, one quickly has to recognize that the only given in a Haydn Symphony is that there is no such thing as a “Haydn Symphony.” 

I’ve just been lucky enough to do two Haydn,
London, E-flat Major symphonies 7 days apart, and the differences are fascinating. So many of the London symphonies have some kind of a gimmick, and the “Drum-roll” has two- the drum-roll itself and Haydn’s cyclical use of the “horn fifths” motive through out the symphony. 

99, or as I like to call it “The Un-subtitled,” has no gimmick- which makes it an altogether different beast. 

At this point, I’d call your attention to this wonderful comment from David Hoose and this very apt description of the late symphonies as “
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.” 

99, perhaps because it is free of all the tricks and gimmicks is one of the most extreme examples of this style of symphony. Certainly conducting it tonight felt very much like David’s apt description of a musical super-car. 

I had a few “wow” moments on my way to becoming a Haydn nut. One of those was at a music festival many years ago. The “student showcase” night was the most extraordinary epic, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, three premieres by very good student composers, the Varese Octandre and the Schoenberg First Chamber Symphony. Just before the Schoenberg, a group came out and played one movement of a Haydn piano trio, and, having spent literally hours both performing and listening to 20th Century music of high complexity, it sounded like, by far, the most modern music of the night. 


In the ten + years since that night, I’ve never stopped hearing Haydn as contemporary music.  



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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

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