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An Occasional series


David C.F. Wright

based on his article

What makes a great composer?





Copyright David C. F. Wright 2001.

This article must not be copied in part or the whole or stored in any retrieval system or used in any way without the prior written consent of the author.


To many of us the symphony is the ultimate composition. A composer who can write symphonies with the first movement in sonata form, a slow movement of beautiful ideas developed well, a scherzo of high spirits and a stunning lively foot-tapping finale is a good composer and honouring to his art. There are works today called symphonies which are not symphonies at all. Benjamin Britten’s Cello Symphony is not a symphony neither is his Spring Symphony. Zemlinsky has written a magnificent Lyric Symphony which is not a symphony but a brilliant orchestral song cycle. The use of the word symphony here is a matter of prestige. Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony introduced a choral finale which rather defeats the tradition of the symphony.

But the father of the symphony was Franz Joseph Haydn who wrote 104 numbered symphonies, only eleven of which are in a minor key, which could be interpreted as indicative of the sunny disposition of this fine composer. He wrote 21 symphonies each in C major and D major. In fact his Symphony no. 1 is in D, as is his last, the Symphony no. 104. There are twelve symphonies in G major and ten of each in B flat major and E flat major. Surprisingly, there are only six in F major.

Some 29 symphonies have names or nicknames as follows:

6 in D Le Matin
7 in C Le Midi
8 in G Le Soir
22 in E flat The Philosopher
26 in D minor Lamentatione
30 in C Alleluia
31 in D Hornsignal
43 in E flat Mercury
44 in E minor Trauer
45 in F sharp minor Farewell
48 in C Maria Theresa
49 in F minor La Passione
53 in D Imperial
55 in E flat Schoolmaster
60 in C II distratto
63 in C La Roxelane
69 in C Laudon
73 in D La Chasse
82 in C The Bear
83 in G minor The Hen
85 in B flat The Queen
92 in G Oxford
94 in G The Surprise
96 in D The Miracle
100 in G Military
101 in D minor The Clock
103 in E flat The Drum Roll
104 in D London

Other symphonies have occasionally been given titles. Number 59 has sometimes been called Fire. Number 88 has been called The Letter V. At least two symphonies, II distratto and Le Roxelane have more than one version. Symphonies 82 to 87 were written for Paris and are called the Paris symphonies and symphonies 93 to 104 are called the London symphonies. Symphony no. 92 is called the Oxford because Haydn was awarded a doctorate of music there.

Symphony no. 60 has six movements but performances do not always play all the movements hence we have versions. Symphony no. 63 is so called because it has a set of variations on a tune of that name and this symphony has versions A and B. The Laudon symphony is named after the Field-Marshal von Loudon who defeated the Turks. Incidentally, there are two spellings of his name. The Hen symphony is so-called because of a clucking sound in the second subject of the first movement. The Miracle, which is now thought to refer to symphony no. 98, was given this title because a chandelier fell in a performance and, miraculously, no one was hurt.

Haydn is often played badly these days. Orchestras and instrumentalists in the main seem to play his music sedately and linger over ornamentation. He is a composer of vigour and his music is deprecated if his allegros and prestos are played without the dash, enthusiasm and fast tempi they deserve. To appreciate what I mean symphonies 88 and 104 are given superb dashing performances by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta under Ronald Thomas (CRDC 4070). But if you compare some other conductors they conduct movements described as lively at a slow walking pace. Listen, if you must, to Barenboim conducting number 84 with the ECO. That wonderful opening movement, my favourite, has no sparkle and, frankly, it is a pathetic performance. Haydn’s music needs life. It is exhilarating and sometimes it is very special.

Of course, not all his music is of the same quality but that could be said of all composers particularly those who never seem to stop composing. Even some of his popular works are not that good, and, strangely, some of his least known works are marvellous. The Symphony no. 41 in C as performed by the English Consort under Trevor Pinnock was a revelation to me when I heard this stunning performance as was his superb account of number 48. When you hear Haydn played as well as this you wonder how bad performances ever get on to disc.

There are a lot of works, sometimes attributed to Haydn, which are spurious. There are two more symphonies called A and B which may not be by Haydn. One might be by Wagenseil. But clearly the symphony was Haydn’s great invention and achievement. It developed out of the Sinfonia or Overture which often had three movements. While the word symphony literally means sounding together, the form that Haydn used has made the real symphony a coherent proposition. There is nothing more irritating than something that is formless. Order is still a vital requirement, and not just in music.

The sonata form was also generally used by classical composers for the first movement of concertos and major chamber works such as the string quartet. Haydn wrote 83 String Quartets although some scholars regard the first 36, up to and including the Opus 20 quartets, as divertimentos. As with the symphonies, some quartets show tremendous humour such at the famous Quartet in E flat, Opus 33 no.2, known as The Joke, because you don’t know when to applaud as the final phrase keeps reappearing. Haydn had in mind the audience being anxious to get away. Haydn’s wit, particularly as to the subject of time was also on show in his Symphony no. 45 in F sharp minor known as the Farewell. The Prince wanted to stay at Eszterhaza for longer than usual and the musicians, who lived-in at the castle, wanted to get back to their respective wives and children. And so, in the finale the instruments stopped playing one by one blowing out their candles leaving only Haydn and Tomasini playing two violins. The Prince got the message.

The symphonies numbered 44 to 49 belong to what is often called Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period. Literally it means storm and urgency but many of us think that the set of symphonies began earlier with the impressive number 39 in G minor. It has the feel of lamentation but is a strong work and the orchestration includes four horns. The Symphony no. 41, already referred to, has a wonderful festive flavour to it. As was often the case names given to Haydn symphonies were added later. The Mercury was such a later addition. That Haydn could adapt himself and his music is shown in Symphony no. 44 known as Trauer which means mourning. It has the atmosphere of a church sonata. The opening allegro is fiery, if played well, and the slow movement which gives the symphony its title has a grave beauty that is quite lovely and which Haydn asked to be played at his own funeral. Symphony no. 46 is in a rare key, that of B major and recalls the horn writing of number 39. It is, by turn, a bright and dark symphony. The entertaining Symphony no. 47 is famous for its minuet and trio which is a palindrome. The Maria Theresa symphony is a major achievement, a masterpiece. It starts with a thrilling sound from the horns; the Adagio has demanding parts for the horns but the music has a tremendous sweep. The Symphony no. 49 (Le Passione) is so-called because it was written for Holy Week 1768, and is, in effect, another church sonata. Although, how it could contain a minuet, I do not know, but then so did number 44. It could be argued that the Symphony no. 51 in B flat is a Sturm and Drang symphony. As is often the case in ‘early’ symphonies most of the drama is left to the horns and the horn parts in this symphony are of great difficulty.

Haydn’s father was called Mathias (1699-1763) who settled in Rohrau in Austria in 1727. He was a wheelwright and, later, became a local official responsible for highways and hedges and the like under the title of local Marktrichter. And in the following year, 1728, Mathias married Anna Maria Koller (1707-1754) and they had twelve children. Joseph was number two being born on 31 March 1732, and Michael, who was also a composer was number six. After Anna’s death Mathias married again and had five more children, none of whom survived childhood.

Joseph grew up in a modest home and inherited his father’s love of music. The boy went to Vienna in May 1740 as a choirboy and, of course, a boarder, of St Stephen’s Cathedral where he stayed for twenty years. For the second half of those two decades he was really a freelance composer and musician. Haydn’s parents wanted Joseph to train for the priesthood and, all his life, Haydn, had a strong connection with Roman Catholicism. In fact he wrote some fourteen masses and some of them are truly sublime and are not only fine music but spiritually uplifting. His great oratorio, The Creation, may not be the masterpiece that Messiah is but it also reveals Haydn’s beliefs long before Darwin espoused the flawed theory of evolution. Often at the end of scores, and not just sacred works, Haydn would write Laus Deo. Joseph’s brother, Michael, joined the choir in 1745.

In the 1750s Joseph scraped a living and this was the time of his first string quartets. For a while he knew what it was like to be penniless and homeless. But he had become a fine musician and was now able to take up a post as a Kappellmeister. He read books on music including one by C. P. E. Bach. By the end of the 1750s Haydn was well-known and both admired and respected. In 1759 he was appointed to the position of music director to Count Morzin in Vienna with a salary of 200 gulden and free board and lodgings. He wrote his Symphony no.1. But the Count was foolish with money and the Court orchestra had to be disbanded. In 1760 Haydn went to Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy who was impressed with the symphony and they entered into a contract for Joseph to be assistant Kappellmeister.

In 1760 Haydn married Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller (1729-1800), the daughter of a wigmaker. It was a disaster. Haydn had wanted to marry her sister, Josepha, but she entered a convent. The wedding took place at St Stephen’s Cathedral on 26th November. Anna had no liking for Haydn’s music or career. There are curious stories that she had amorous encounters with many members of the clergy which, presented one less risk, because she could not have children. It is understood that Haydn sought female company elsewhere.

Haydn entered to service of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy in 1761, although Prince Nikolaus was his employer. Prince Paul Anton who would bring home from his travels new operas and symphonies. At first the Court was at Eisenstadt before it moved to Eszterhaza.

He was with the Eszterhazy family for thirty years until 1790. During that time he wrote symphonies numbers 6 to 92, at least, six masses as well as many other sacred works, dramatic works and opera including II Mondo Della Luna of 1777, about 62 string quartets and, innumerable baryton trios pIus 33 works for one or two barytons. This was an instrument of the viol family with sympathetic strings. In France it was sometimes called Basse Viol d’Amour. The Prince played the instrument. This outstanding composer was equally at home in the theatre, concert hall, the drawing room and the church as witnesses and his own works testify. He was born in a town which supported many nationalities including Austrians, Hungarians, Germans and Croatians. He had a good grasp of culture. In fact, in the 1880s, someone produced a thesis that Haydn was a Croatian composer. In June 1789 Haydn began a friendship with Maria Anna von Genzinger (known as Marianne) whose husband Peter was the doctor of Prince Nikolaus. She had made a piano arrangement of a slow movement of one of the symphonies and expressed the desire to met Haydn when he came to Vienna. This launched a long correspondence and he began to confide in her his inmost thoughts. This meant a great deal to the master. When Mozart died on December 5th, 1791, at the early age of 31, Haydn could not believe it. Marianne proved to be his support. But ,just over a year later, in January 1793, Marianne died. She was 35. That this friendship was very warm and that her death could not rob him of precious memories his style in the symphonies changed. The first, the wonderful Symphony no. 99 in E flat, is full of Marianne’s warmth and sunlight. It is the first symphony in E flat to use trumpets and timpani and it has double woodwind and that, of course, means clarinets as well. The slow movement is clearly a picture of Marianne.

Beethoven went to Vienna in 1792 and studied with Haydn. The younger man realised how much of a novice he was and that hurt his pride so that he unfairly said of Haydn that he taught him nothing. Papa Haydn helped Beethoven in many practical ways, financially and in finding sponsors and patrons for him. Perhaps Haydn was also a little proud for the story goes that he wanted Beethoven to write on his scores that he was a pupil of his.

Johann Peter Salomon was an English impresario who visited the Courts of Europe to seek out talent. In 1790 he offered Haydn £300 for a new opera, another £300 for three new symphonies and other monies if he would come to London. Many of his friends were against his going on the grounds of the problems with language and Mozart said, "You were meant to be running around the world..." England loved Haydn. How could they not?

But it benefited Haydn. He was very impressed with the oratorios of Handel. Like Beethoven, he loved nature and the countryside. Haydn had picnics by the Thames. He became very friendly with the Prince of Wales because he spoke German fluently and played the cello. He met Rebecca, the widow of the composer Johann Samuel Schroter (1750-1788) who had been music-master to the Queen. This relationship became very close indeed. There was a false report in England of Haydn’s death in 1805.

In his final years Haydn wrote some of his finest music, the string quartets Opus 76 nos. 1-6 and the two that make up Opus 77, the G major one being infectious and the magnificent Te Deum in C. In 1798 The Creation was completed as was the splendid Nelson Mass. The Seasons was finished the following year and Haydn said that this work had finished him off. Indeed, his health was failing. In 1802 he said that he was working wearily on his last mass, the Harmony Mass. In his decline he did not neglect himself as did Beethoven. Haydn remained the ultra-tidy and smart man he always was.

As with Beethoven, Haydn was deeply distressed by the bellicose French and their incursions into Austria and Vienna and neither had any liking for Napoleon’s empire building and subjugation of other peoples. When Napoleon occupied Vienna in 1809 it devastated Haydn who died four days later on May 31st.

Copyright David C. F. Wright ... Laus Deo

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