Franz Joseph Haydn: The Musical Legacy

Franz Joseph Haydn has been called the “father of the symphony”, the “father of the string quartet”, etc. which might not be strictly true, but it’s undeniable that he is the most mis-appreciated, if not unappreciated, of all the great classical composers. In his life time, Haydn was hailed as the greatest composer of all, a celebrity in great demand among the royalty as well as the popular audiences all over Europe, with unmatched fame and fortune. Yet posterity has treated him with rather less fervor, especially alongside Mozart and Beethoven.

It is not as if Haydn is forgotten or ignored. On the contrary he is featured regularly in concerts, radio programs and recordings more often than many other composers; his prodigious output would certainly ensure that. Yet that might also be one of the reasons why he has fallen from his exalted position among the 'all time great's. May be he is heard too often but not recognized as “easy listening” material for the casual listener? Certainly the frequent airing of some aural bookmarks like, say, the Moonlight Sonata or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik would have helped!

Music of Haydn

Since Haydn delved into almost all genres of music and excelled in most, it is surprising to find so few recycling or repetitions. Without forgetting, however, that until late in his career Haydn was not a “free” or free-lance composer like Beethoven or Mozart but a “servant” musician with the job of churning out routine pieces at his employer’s whims and command, a certain bland sameness or lack of hard edge would be inevitable. In fact, there are stories about his patron Prince Estarházy editing (censoring?) his compositions for being  too long, inappropriate, or even too risqué !

Considering the staggeringly vast oeuvre of Haydn, it is amazing yet reassuring how many old or newly discovered symphonies, concertos or string quartets of Haydn are continually being highlighted for reappraisal. And it is never too late.

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Haydn Symphony

The so-called “father of the symphony” did not invent the symphony, but he was the first to have ‘remolded’ the structure of the old sinfonia, overture or other musical forms and created a prototype of the familiar symphony for full orchestra; in this he was greatly influenced by C P E Bach, plus some members of the Mannheim School and other ‘preclassicists’.

Haydn: Symphonies 40-54 (Vol 3) / Fischer, Haydn Orchestra

Haydn’s oeuvre includes about 106 symphonies, probably more. It is a treasure trove of unsurpassed innovation which has always been taken for granted. There is in each of the symphonies a refreshing originality which gives the lie to the old canard about all Haydn symphonies sounding the same or boring. In order not to sound stale or tedious, Haydn often tweaked the structure subtly, and changed nature, order, tempo or key of sub-sections, yet all within the confines of classical sonata form. In addition. Haydn’s great sense of humor and a penchant for practical jokes gave his compositions a certain uniqueness, not to mention the memorable nicknames, often given by others, for many of his symphonies.

The Sturm Und Drang Era - Haydn: Symphonies / Fischer, Et Al

A seemingly unassuming man, Haydn could nonetheless be daring in his innovations as evident in his Sturm und Drang Symphonies, which were sometimes anti-rational with a predilection for minor keys; in these he was more adventurous than many of his even younger contemporaries including Mozart, whose many works often evoke these Haydn symphonies, some made more memorable by nicknames such as Lamentatione (no. 26 in D-minor), Farewell (no.45 in F-sharp minor), La Passione (no.49 F-minor), etc.

Haydn: Paris Symphonies / Fischer, Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra
Haydn: Symphonies 93-104 (Vol 8) / Fischer, Haydn Orchestra

Haydn’s Paris Symphonies (with nicknames like The Bear, The Hen, The Queen, etc.) were less serious, but nonetheless hugely popular and critically acclaimed. Finally, when Haydn was at last “free” to pursue music his way, he accepted a very lucrative offer from the impressario Johann Salomon to visit London and to conduct his new symphonies with a large professional orchestra. His two visits to London were great successes in every way, and the combined total of about 12 London Symphonies (many with nicknames, e.g., The Surprise, The Miracle, Military, The Clock, Drumroll, London,) were some of his best-known and memorable works.

Haydn String Quartets

In terms of techniques and innovations Haydn’s string quartets are considered a milestone in the history of western classical music, and prove beyond doubt why he deserves his sobriquet “the father of the string quartet”. With no precedent to follow, he practically invented the genre and revolutionized it with over 68 compositions until the last decade of his life.

Haydn: String Quartets Op. 33 Nos. 1-6 / Coull Quartet
Haydn: String Quartets, Op 76 1-3 / Takás Quartet

String quartets are usually not as popular or accessible as symphonies or concertos, otherwise Haydn’s legacy would probably have been appreciated more positively. Even the earlier Op.20 quartets are startlingly original, some imbued with the Strum und Drang fervor, foreshadowing Mozart, while others incorporating fugal finales which must have inspired Beethoven. The Op. 33 set introduced the scherzo to replace the minuet long before Beethoven. Haydn’s last completed set, Op.76, contain some of his better known works in this genre (e.g., The Donkey, Emperor, Sunrise, etc.

Haydn: The Seven Last Words / Sine Nomine Quartet
Haydn: Seven Last Words / Muti, Vienna Philharmonic

Apart from the incomplete Op.77 set and the unfinished Op. 103, the list also includes the String Quartet Op. 51,  a  transcription of The Seven Last Words of Christ reduced from the orchestral version.

Haydn’s Legacy

In addition to the symphonies and string quartets, Haydn pioneered the modern piano trio as well as numerous piano sonatas. Many of his concertos are well-known and well-appreciated especially the ones for solo Trumpet or Cellos. He was successful in all the genres which he tried, except perhaps operas.

Haydn: Complete Piano Trios Vol 1 / Trio 1790

After the London symphonies, Haydn felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of the form and stopped writing any more symphony. Physical and mental exhaustion forced him to gradually give up other compositions as well, and focus his energy solely on Oratorios. It was a grand vision, a spiritual quest which gave him strength. The Creation was a brilliant success in every sense, followed by The Seasons. A third piece based on The Last Judgement never got off the ground; he was too weak to continue.

Haydn fell silent for the last six years of his life. By then, his unprecedented achievements had advanced western music beyond the classical period which he epitomized, into the nascent romantic era. No one has achieved so much before or since, or left such uplifting, inspiring and unforgettable masterpieces.