He is, in many ways, the “forgotten master” of classical music.
He lived at the same time as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. He was a friend of the former, and mentor to the latter. Of Mozart, he is quoted as telling musicologist George Burney: “I have often been flattered by my friends with having some genius, but he was much my superior.” He instructed Beethoven for over a year, and although he never developed a friendship with the younger man (who in turn felt he could learn nothing from his mentor), he also recognized Beethoven’s potential for greatness.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the “forgotten master” of classical music, lived his long and musically prolific life in the same manner as most composers before him did – in the service of an aristocratic master. For over 30 years, Haydn was the Vice Kapellmeister to the Hungarian Esterházy family. During this period, he was given complete artistic freedom by his master, Prince Nicholas Esterházy. He was permitted to compose whatever he wanted, so long as he provided the musical entertainment required by his prince, and so long as he fulfilled his responsibilities as the leader of all other musicians in the Esterházy household.
Given this freedom, Haydn responded by using his innate musical creativity and inventiveness to produce an astonishing array of compositions in a variety of genres and forms. Among the works he composed during his lifetime are found: 104 symphonies, 36 concertos for various instruments, 14 Masses, 13 operas, 45 piano trios, 62 piano sonatas, 83 string quartets, and 3 oratorios. There is no redundancy in any of his works; all of it sounds fresh and original.
Haydn is credited by musicologist James Webster as being the “father of the symphony… and of the string quartet.” He perfected the sonata form (exposition-development-recapitulation in three or four movements of varying tempo) that was used extensively by Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers of the classical era.
Haydn’s contemporaries describe him as being a deeply religious man with a cheerful disposition. He was widely respected by his peers as a man of singularly high character, modesty, and virtue. Haydn’s music reflects his marvelously well-adjusted personality; all of it is imbued with his fundamental optimism and sunny outlook on life.
Because Haydn remained secluded at the Esterházy estate for most of his career, he was unaware of the tremendously positive reception his music was getting in western Europe. Later in his life, after he had been freed from his obligations to the Esterházys, Haydn travelled to Paris and London, where he discovered, much to his amazement, that his music was being ecstatically received everywhere.
Franz Joseph Haydn ranks high among my favorite composers of classical music. I have included a wide variety of recordings by the “forgotten master” in my library of classical music on compact disc (CD). Here’s list of 6 recordings of Haydn’s symphonic and chamber music that I recommend as essential for Haydn enthusiasts everywhere:
Haydn: Symphonies No. 6 “Le Matin,” No. 7 “Le Midi,” and No. 8 “Le Soir”
Northern Chamber Orchestra, Nicholas Ward
This trio of Haydn’s early symphonies forms a program of music written in 1761 at the request of his first patron, Prince Paul Anton of Esterházy. Taken together, the symphonies are a musical representation of “Morning,” “Noon,” and “Evening,” and are marvelously played by the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Nicholas Ward. This small orchestra, based in Manchester, England, is ideally suited to perform these symphonies, which are all scored for pairs of different woodwinds and stringed instruments. The results are outstanding in every respect; the playing is lean, taut, and filled with Haydn’s sunny disposition.
Haydn: Trumpet Concerto; Oboe Concerto; Flute Concerto; Sinfonia Concertante
Gilbert Johnson (Trumpet); Pierre Pierlot (Oboe); Jean-Pierre Rampal (Flute)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy; Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra, Janos Rolla
Here is some of Haydn’s most cheerful music. The Trumpet Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante are played with tremendous warmth and intimacy by the Philadelphia Orchestra and trumpeter Gilbert Johnson, under the expert direction of Eugene Ormandy. The Oboe and Flute Concertos are attributed to Haydn, but are probably the works of Leopold Hoffman, an Austrian composer and contemporary of Mozart’s. It’s very difficult to distinguish them from Haydn’s best work; the performances are marvelous, especially that of flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal in the flute concerto. Although these performances were recorded between 1958 and 1967, their sound quality in this digital transfer is rich full, and perfectly balanced.
Haydn: String Quartets “Emperor,” Fifths,” and “Sunrise”
This 71-minute long CD contains three of the finest string quartets ever composed by Franz Joseph Haydn. They are part of a set of six string quartets completed in 1797 and dedicated by Haydn to Count Erdödy. The works’ nicknames derive from thematic elements contained in the first movement of each quartet. The Kodály Quartet, which has played together for over 40 years, gives intimate, polished and literate performances of all three quartets. This CD received special recognition, in the form of a “rosette,” from the editors of the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music; it is an absolute delight from start to finish.
Haydn: Piano Trios, Hob. XV Nos. 24-27
Beaux Arts Trio
Menahem Pressler (Piano); Isodore Cohen (Violin); Bernard Greenhouse (Cello)
These four piano trios were composed by Haydn and published between 1795 and 1797, after Haydn had been released from his obligations to the Esterházy household. They are superbly performed by the Beaux Arts Trio, an ensemble renowned for its warm and lyrical interpretations of eighteenth century chamber music. Especially noteworthy is the “Gypsy” Trio (Hob. XV No. 26) with its third movement that blends classical sophistication with folk dance tunes.
Haydn: The London Symphonies, Volumes I and II
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis
Here is a pair of 2-CD sets that contain the last 12 of Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonies. They were composed in London during two separate visits Haydn made there, in 1791-92 and again in 1794-95. These symphonies are the apotheosis of the form that Haydn had perfected over the course of 30 years. They are flawlessly played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of the Netherlands. The audio quality of these CDs is clear, crisp, and conveys every nuance of Haydn’s symphonic masterpieces. Both of these CD sets also received special recognition, in the form of “rosettes,” from the editors of the Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music.
There you have it… my list of 6 essential recordings of Franz Joseph Haydn’s symphonic and chamber music that every Haydn enthusiast should include in their CD library. Listen and enjoy!
Personal Listening Experience
Liner notes of listed CDs
[Franz] Joseph Haydn – Wikipedia article
The Lives of the Great Composers by Harold C. Schonberg. Copyright © 1970, W.W. Norton and Company, New York.