Yr Guide to Getting Down w/ Haydn

Getting Down with Haydn

“…music is not so aggressive that it will come through without your help… The key to…understanding it is not knowledge, because the music itself will teach you whatever you need to know. The key is feeling” – Mstislav Rostropovich


In the course of over five centuries the classical tradition, or Concert Music, has amassed such a rich amount of knowledge sorting through it takes a different set of tools than most of us have in our shed. Let alone understanding it.

Check it out: You know you like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun‘ and you know where to find it. Pretty simple, but, it becomes much trickier if it was never recorded — and, instead,  it was found in Lennon’s sock drawer. It would be hard to say, even if  scored precisely, how much of what you came up with was his. Often, that is exactly what we’re dealing with when we discuss Concert Music: music left to interpretation.

With the advent of radio, records, and the industries they created this problem became obscured: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” That’s an Elvis song right? Nope. With the development of recorded performances we were given a frame of reference. Through countless renditions we subconsciously identify aspects of the “cover” to this frame of reference. Yet, separated by this much time and technological distance communicating the author’s exact idea falls somewhere between impossible or irrelevant (Some would strongly disagree with me on this issue, and their arguments are not without merit but they aren’t mine so go read it somewhere else).

Issues of authorship and translation aside, unlike popular records, knowing that you like Beethoven (perhaps the most widely known of all Haydn’s pupils) isn’t enough to lead you to some of the greatest records boasting his work; least of all what will become your favorite. Concert Music is usually cataloged by multiple and quite specific  sets of artist information (since defining who the “artist” even is can be difficult). Discerning the differences you enjoy depends on understanding the roles of each and the careful balance between them.

The composer, in this case Haydn, has of course written the tune.  The orchestra performs the score as directed by the conductor. In concept, a conductor has complete control over the performance. And conductors have very different personalities. Naturally, the results can vary quite a bit. Leonard Bernstein was just simply terrific with his performances of Beethoven, yet they stand in sharp contrast, for instance, to those performed by Herbert Von Karajan to many critics and fans. That’s why you’ll normally see the listing for a performance as follows:

Sir Colin Davis/ Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – Haydn – Symphony 104 “London”

Occasionally this order is adjusted. Often a date of the performance, an opus number from the composer, or record label’s catalog number is included as well. With an album by the Rolling Stones a lot of this information would be superfluous, however with as many variables as Classical records contain specificity is a virtue. This is because, for the casual and curious listener, Concert Music presents us with two problems: finding and attempting to understand music we like, and finding a recording of it.

So we’re left with just one pressing question: Why bother going through the effort?

Without going into too much of the whole ‘art thing‘ or too much of the whole ‘science thing‘, there is an amazing aspect of music, a sculptural element that dissipates immediately. In effect, inviting your nervous system to focus on the connections between these moments. Inviting you, in all senses, to feel. There are masters of this, in all idioms and genres, in every type of music. Each of them overflowing with insight on what it means to hear, if not just be alive. Franz Joseph Haydn not least among them.

The Master:

Haydn‘s balance of intellectual resonance and emotional poignancy, his inventiveness with considered regard to tradition,  his unique position as one of the earliest composers afforded the opportunity to conceive of a public –rather than an individual — as the audience for his music all strongly influenced the trajectory of the art. Upon sending him to study with Haydn in 1792 the great patron Count Waldenstein said Beethoven would “receive Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands.”  Haydn’s achievements were not the result of some almost magical gift, however, like we’ve come to associate with Wolfgang. They were of a lifetime of dedication and understanding, by what all accounts seems to have been a largely affable and kind man.

After his 29 year post serving as Kapellmeister for his patron, Prince Esterhazy, in Austria, Haydn was given the opportunity (and an outrageous sum of money) to sail to London. There, from 1790-1792 and again from 1794-1795, Haydn composed some of the most considered, fully formed, and defining music of the era. We’ve come to know these as Haydn’s London Symphonies.

Riding the crest of the Enlightenment, Haydn was given a unique position. Rather than envisioning the ultimate performance of his work taking place in the private manor of his patron, Haydn’s London Symphonies were debuted to a general audience. They were written for a pervading sense of what he thought an English taste. Under his direction, these symphonies were debuted to stunning fanfare. Of his Symphony No. 104, the Morning Chronicle of May 5th, 1795 wrote:

“He rewarded the good intentions of his friends by writing a new Overture for the occasion, which for fullness, richness, and majesty, in all its parts, is thought…to surpass all his other compositions… for fifty years to come Musical Composers would be little better than imitators of Haydn.”

Since his death, in 1809, Haydn’s music has been left to interpretation. What undefined accents and ideas existed between the staves passed with him from this world to the next. And if by some stretch of the imagination those ideas were still in his head, his head was discovered missing in 1820, taken by phrenologists.

Haydn, thankfully, isn’t the only technical master of emotion involved in the production of his music. He’s the writer. As much as a film can succeed or fail by the quality of acting or directing, a reproduction of Haydn’s music can succeed or fail on the quality of musicianship or conducting. That’s why knowing the conductor or the orchestra is an asset. It’s valuable because whether or not you liked Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) is not a reflection on whether or not you’ll like the 1933 original or vice versa.

The Masterpiece: Botticelli-oil-painting

The philosopher G.W.F. Hegel once wrote: “The owls of Minerva fly only at dusk”. What he meant by this tiny sentence was immense. Here, it can suffice to say: you don’t understand something unless its already happened.

Franz Joseph Haydn didn’t stumble into his 104th symphony. It was his final, the last of twelve symphonies commissioned in London. They were the culmination of not only a lifetime’s work, but of an era. If Mozart gleefully sketched the essences of the Classical era with his last four symphonies, Haydn arduously sculpted them. Between the two the entire canon of 18th century European musical styles became synthesized. The result is Haydn’s Symphony 104, cleverly titled ‘London’.

Along with incorporating European folk and concert styles into the content of his symphonies, Haydn restlessly explored the structure of them as well. Each bar carefully in its place. Each movement a symphony in itself. His explorations now standards. His life’s work, repertoire.  He is still known as the ‘father’ of the symphony. If not because he created it, because he nurtured it.

Listening to Haydn’s London Symphonies as if you’d never heard of Classical music before almost puts you in the same seat as his audience. The development of the Classical form culminated with the début of Haydn’s final symphony. It was a Monday, 1795. Just over a decade before Ludwig Van Beethoven dismantled it, on a Thursday in 1808.

Beyond encapsulating and giving definition to the Classical era, Haydn helped lay the groundwork for the Romantic era that followed. The first movement of his ‘London’ anticipates Beethoven and Brahms as much as it echoes Mozart and Handel. Like a cadence signally the end of era, Haydn’s ‘London’ symphony coalesced the many parallel ideas of the 18th century, just was it was about to end.


Haydn’s contribution to the development of the symphony is reflected in the structure itself. Given Haydn’s significant contribution to the symphony it seems fitting to deconstruct the form he so eloquently established.  The Classical Symphony  is traditionally made of four movements, each consisting of three or four segments.

Nothing is without predecessors, but the form of symphony established by Mozart and Haydn in the late 18th and early 19th centuries immediately comes to mind when most people think of ‘Classical’ music.  Informed by the Enlightenment obsession with symmetry and reason, the Classical Symphony is stately and authoritative.

Taken as a whole you’re likely to surrender to the symphony’s magnitude (certainly that can be seen as the aim of Late Romantics). However, like an album is made of songs, a symphony is made of movements. And like a song has any number of constituent parts so each movement does as well. Through carefully contemplating the components of a symphony you engage with the music actively. By just knowing what the damn thing’s made of the music takes on a new personality.

The First Movement:

The First Movement is generally made of a thematic melody surrounded by motifs which serve to compliment or counter that theme. Generally, this is achieved through the use of Sonata Form (which is, in turn, reflective of the entire structure of the symphony).  The themes and motifs arrive with certainty and, more often than not, deliberate speed, or allegro. The first appearance of the theme, or Exposition, may be introduced by a contrasting element or may simply be stated.

The motives, or sections of melody that constitute the theme, mutate and evolve throughout the First Movement. Often they are contrasted with additional elements occurring in the melody or with disparate elements taking life in the harmony.  Like listening to a surrealist painting, the very landscape shifts before our ears — occasionally altering our perspective of certain vistas or leading us toward entirely new ones.  This is Development, the second segment of this Sonata.

As the melodic, tonal, and rhythmic shifts seem as if they will create a fault line, the theme reappears — armor shining, white horse gallantly galloping toward the Recapitulation. The theme reappears recognizable yet altered in any number of ways by its journey.  Just as the melody is restored it is greeted by swelling accolades from the numerous phrases and motifs before coming to a close. This ending is often called a codetta. The codetta’s major elements are often alluded to throughout the segments of the sonata with a tool known as a cadence melody signaling the end of a section.

The Second Movement:

The composition often rests, briefly, after the codetta and resumes with gravitas for the second installment of the symphony.  This movement can take on many incarnations.  Often, a change of key and tempo are employed. Imagine dragging the cursor across a color gradient in Photoshop, accentuating the blue or red content of an image. When a melody introduced in G Major reappears in D Major, perhaps a little faster, and coming from the cellos opposed to the violins, it has a similar effect.

The full melody of the theme may be stated and its chemical bonds re-arranged into distinct isotopes. This style is Theme and Variation. Or, perhaps, the section could be presented in ABA, or, Song Form. A recognizable variation on the theme, contrasted by a middle section, returning to the melody as before — what most of us take for granted as a song.

Often, the composer gives us yet another sonata shorter somewhat in terms of staves but slower. Designed to contrast the first movement as the development to the exposition. The theme of this second movement may be only very distantly related to that of the first. It may change keys, tempo, or orchestration. Often all three.

The Third Movement:

This movement of a Classical Symphony is presented in song form, generally, a Minuet. A more or less straight-forward dance, the minuet was Haydn’s gift to the form. Though the minuet, itself, had been used prior to Haydn, it is the champagne bubbling beauty he invested in the form that gave it’s prominence during the late 18th century. Beethoven, and most who followed, would replace this dance with a shocking musical diversion that became known as the Scherzo, or joke. The minuet or scherzo brings a reprieve to the exhausting intellect of the preceding passages.

The “A” section boasts an immediate and memorable melody: the Minuet. The contrasting “B” section of the ABA (or ternary) form, is often presented as a Trio. Three of the instruments, themselves, perform a dance of sorts; often in relative minor, or somberly related, key. The party starts back up again after the Trio in preparation for the symphonies closing remarks. This is the refrain of the “A” section.


The final movement of a Classical Symphony can take many forms. It can be presented in Sonata form, mirroring the First or Second movements. It can be presented in ternary song form. Often, though, it is presented as a Rondo. A Rondo is where theme and variation and song form meet. ABA becomes ABACABADA or any combination thereof, wherein the extra letters represent additional, yet consistent, variations of the theme.

Regardless of the preceding form used in last movement of a symphony the final segment is almost always a Coda. In a Coda the original key is restored, and the exposition is given a resurgence. Like childhood memories it serves to remind you where you started and how far you’ve come. The image of a conductor dramatically leading his orchestra to a sudden shout and halt stems from the intensity of this final movement.


The First Movement: Adagio – Allegro

Haydn’s Symphony No. 104  begins with two chords. Well, in the strictest sense they actually aren’t chords at all; they lack the defining element of a chord (what in the mechanics of a chord is referred to as its 3rd). From the onset of this motif it isn’t possible to tell if what we are listening to is set in Major or Minor. It is apprehensive at best. It isn’t until the appearance of the missing note that we realize the gravity of this brief but slow Minor Key introduction or adagio. Haydn uses this powerful introductory statement to juxtapose his deceptively simple, yet enrapturing, quick paced and cheery Major Key theme or allegro. Many composers would have left a theme as sublime as this on its own, yet Haydn elegantly frames the exposition with a mahogany Minor Key introduction and hangs the entire First Movement salon-style among a flourish of melody and poignant ebbs and flows.

New melodic interpretations of the elements of the theme emerge like dissent among the strings, only to be echoed by trumpets and oboes and then validated by timpani throughout the development. Here the development is alluded by a modulating bridge, which means that the melody is fragmented and taken on a trip through relative perspectives before taking shaping again in another key.

The Second Movement: Adante

We’re treated to a second movement in sonata form as the symphony’s second movement. Here, Haydn inverts the form from the beginning movement. The dramatic mood of the introduction is replaced with a light exposition theme in the key of G Major, reminiscent of the first movement. The lilting violins and shy oboes filling the moment with joy before being subverted by the minor key, similar to the introduction, taking shape in orchestra. The drama comes to an abrupt stop and the rest is followed by the recapitulation of the theme.

Given Haydn’s nuanced and insightful approach to the symphonic form, it is just as likely to understand this movement as Theme and Variation overlayed on a sonata format, as NPR‘s Ted Libbey does. Either way you wish to interpret the form, this compact sonata is capped by a coda raising its arms to the sky victoriously.

The Third Movement: Minuet and Trio

Composer and Music Historian Robert Greenberg, of San Francisco Performance and The Teaching Company, marvels at Haydn’s ability to inject new life into this tried and tested form. Haydn’s final minuet is gorgeous. It’s difficult not to imagine an elegant dance shaping the melodies where we’d normally expect to see violins. Then appears the trio. The winds tug the strings like a marionette through pulses of minor keys and we are delivered back to the minuet restored.

This movement is a 220 year-old Pop song.  After the swells of cerebral and emotional crests and nadirs this third movement has an extraordinary impact, but given our attention spans in the digital age it can also serve as the most rewarding movement heard on its own.

Finale: Spiritoso

On Haydn’s hand-written score we find scribbled under this last passage the words: “Fine Laus Deo”, meaning “The End, Praise God”. In 1794 Haydn was 63 years old and he seems to have known that he wouldn’t compose another symphony. Here we are treated to every last symphonic idea remaining in Haydn’s hand. There is debate among musicologists as to where these melodies must’ve come from. It seems agreed upon that many of them are folk songs Haydn had become familiar with over the course of his life.

Haydn creates such tension under these melodies by providing a droning bass line (like the way a solo blues guitarist does) that by the time we reach the coda it seems like you are actively keeping your butt in your seat. The emotional power accompanying our return to D Major: tearful joy, Fine Laus Deo.

Recordings: url

The performances of Haydn’s London Symphonies conducted by Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra are highly recommended in NPR’s Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection.  They are taken from his work with the orchestra in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s and represent an updated orchestral arrangement larger than was used in Haydn’s time. Frans Brüggen’s performances with his period orchestra, taken in the ’90’s, give an insightful look into how these symphonies may have first appeared. Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducts the Concertgebouw Orchestra as well, producing what Mike D. Brownell of AllMusic cites as a great reference point for what exists at the base of these symphonies.

There are plenty of resources available to find your favorite recording including Naxos and Deutsche Grammophon. Spotify’s Ulysses app, BBC’s Radio 3,  and Youtube are all great resources available to us using something called the internet (whatever that is).  There are renditions of numerous pieces performed live and crossed referenced, opening a world of new music and interpretations using just a simple telephone wire.

Haydn’s music is still performed regularly, 200 years and counting. Check out your local listing of Symphony performances and you’re almost sure to find one upcoming. If you are a resident of the Boston area I highly suggested an evening with the Haydn and Handel Society.

Fine Laus Deo:

Haydn’s legacy is just one of many that have shaped the music we encounter daily. Remarkable as it may be, Haydn’s music is a drop in an ocean begging to be explored. I hope to have given some insight into understanding how to approach Concert Music. How to find it, deconstruct it, and enjoy it. I hope you find the passion, joy, and interest that has captivated audiences for centuries. As the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich wrote:

“…music is not so aggressive that it will come through without your help… The key to…understanding it is not knowledge, because the music itself will teach you whatever you need to know. The key is feeling”


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