Haydn Symphonies 1-5 (and 37)- A wrap up

Well, that’s it for our first chunk of Haydn, and our first week-long spree of posts. We’ll be having some more big weeks like this over the summer, because I’m feeling ambitious. I’ll have more time to listen and write, and it’s time to catch up on some much needed stuff.
Back to Haydn, though. Perhaps you’re seeing why these symphonies are somewhat easy (or at least convenient) to group together. They were all written in the same five-ish year period between 1757 and 1762, and have a few things in common (orchestration, for example). There just isn’t a ton to go on at length about. That isn’t at all to say that these aren’t worthy, valid, artistic, important pieces. They’re some of the earliest symphonies from the very father of the symphony himself, but there just isn’t a ton to say about them. There are some standout movements from individual symphonies (notably from three and four), but the evolution of the man’s work will be much more noticeable on larger scales.  So there you have it. These are like the earliest fossil evidences of what the symphony would eventually evolve into, a massive, complex, deeply personal, increasingly varied form that maintained its status as the pinnacle of orchestral writing down into our day. A good question, though, is, will it stay that way? Or perhaps that should be asked in the past tense: has it stayed that way? Some of the greatest 20th century composers (of the first half of the century) did incredible things with the form. I think of Mahler and Shostakovich first, but Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff also wrote wonderful works that had their own uniquities (that should be a word). There’s Sibelius, whose seventh symphony was a greatly innovative work. Some of the most famous composers of the last five decades or so, however, haven’t really done as much with the symphony. There’s Alfred Schnittke.  Anyway, these works were the (symphonic) beginning of a career that has had a monumental impact on classical music. Is that even a correct statement? It could be said that they became classical music… These are the small snowflakes that got that snowball started. And so for that we should be thankful.  The next group of five (obviously) contains 6-8 (and perhaps a mis-numbered twenty-something?), which each have a subtitle or moniker to them, so perhaps we’ll see some progress from this composer in the next chunk of works we do of his.
What strikes me as interesting about the symphony here in contrast with listening to something like Shostakovich or Mahler is the purpose of music. Mahler and Bruckner and even Beethoven wrote very personal works, expressed themselves through their music, symphonies or not. I’m not saying that Haydn’s personality doesn’t show through in his work, but it wasn’t the purpose of such music to be expressive and so emotional and personal. And it shows. Aside from the aristocratic customer base, the ideal was perfection, creating something that was perhaps new and innovative and unique, but attained more to the ideal of beauty than personal expression.

Until our next Haydn chunk, let’s enjoy these pieces if not as epic works, then as historical artifacts, valuable for their age and importance, and be grateful that we still have them. For next week’s installment of another section of German literature, we’re going to jump forward almost 100 years to a composer we’ve neglected in the previous German series. See you then.

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