Why do orchestra chiefs keep Haydn hidden?

I review a sudden downpour of Haydn releases in the latest Lebrecht Album of the Week and Lebrecht Listens.

Among them are some stunning pieces that seldom or never get played by major orchestra.

Why is that? Because orchestras have surrendered Haydn to the period-instrument crew? Because they’re scared of being held up for political incorrectness? Because Haydn doesn’t sell? Because, because….. excuses.

There are three pieces in this batch that I want to hear live. Like now.

Let me know if you know anyone that’s doing them.

Read all about it here or here.

And here.


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  • “Because they’re scared of being held up for political incorrectness?”

    How does that relate to Haydn?

    I wonder with Haydn if it’s because of the sheer quantity of pieces. 104+ symphonies, lots of opus numbers of quartets. Plus the Hoboken catalogue is clunky. We Schubert lovers understand D960. But with Haydn it’s all XI:43 etc.

  • I agree. The early symphonies have a lot to offer (done well) and aren’t really played by groups that could really do them justice. To his credit Andris Nelsons has programmed some of the rarer played symphonies (at least in Boston) and that combination is good enough that it exceeds one’s expectations of the music.
    As for period vs. modern – both can be a vehicle in this music for good sound, interesting musical lines, and distinguished playing – but of course it doesn’t replace it. Playing should be 95% mental and only 5% everything else – so choose the instrument then focus on the 95%.

  • I agree. Le Matin, Le Midi, and Le Soir are great pieces. I heard Salonen do wonderful performances with the NY Phil a few years ago. Then the Sturm und Drang symphonies. Der Philosopher; so many more.

    • I actually prefer many Haydn symphonies to any other symphonies of the classical period. The period versus modern paradigm ought not be a deterrent. I’ve heard Haydn played by Concentus Musicus in Vienna and also by reduced forces in standard orchestras. Both sound well. I don’t think Haydn has the same pulling power for audiences as Mozart and Beethoven, but this reflects the worldwide treatment of Haydn in general, IMO, which is completely unjustified. What a magnificent composer and human being he was!!!

      You can all address this relative Haydn ‘neglect’ by visiting his homes in Eisenstadt and Vienna when next you visit Austria!!

  • Here in Memphis (which I visit twice a year), David Loebel programmed quite a lot of Haydn with the MSO: in the course of some 3-4 seasons (2006-10) I heard symphonies 22, 44, 82, 96 & 104, along with Creation and the D major Cello Concerto under his baton. Her successor, the soon-to-depart Mei-Ann Chen, was not so assiduous a champion, but she did program 94 last season, and she also did 44 just last week (very well, too). Manna from Heaven for someone who’s always preferred Haydn to Mozart……

  • I must admit that I respect Haydn more than I like him. I’m not especially interested in hearing a big, powerful orchestra play music for a small string group and a couple oom-pahing winds in a big concert hall. I don’t avoid Haydn, but probably won’t go unless there’s something else I’m more interested in hearing. That said, I loved the pastiche of Haydn symphonies (and other pieces) that Sir Simon and the BPO did a couple years ago – sort of creating their own symphony from parts of others.

  • Maybe because it is hard to do justice to them ? They can sound boring and/or dreadful in the wrong hands and judging from the discography, very few conductors seem to get them right IMHO.

  • Haydn is just not as sexy as Mozart. Haydn lived to the ripe old age of 77 rich in fortune and fame, and he wrote 104+ symphonies, 14 masses, 2 smash hit oratorios, 68 string quartets, 46 piano trios, and 52 piano sonatas.

    Poo’ widdle Mozawt kicked the bucket at age 35, and there are just SO many what ifs of what the cheeky scamp could have achieved had he lived another 35 years. He didn’t have time to compose more than 41 symphonies (of which about 6 are played regularly because he wrote them after he was 4 1/2 years old), a measly ~23 string quartets and 18 piano sonatas. His operas weren’t popular except in a provincial capital like Prague, he died while composing a Requiem and then got thrown into an unmarked grave (not because he was a pauper, but because Joseph II forbade church burials or tomb stones unless you were a noble – or a lot richer than Mozart died) I mean, it SUCKED to be Mozart. Young people can relate to that!

    In classical music, early deaths of composers makes for good press releases and programs (you know, like Schubert; but don’t tell Pergolesi, Arriaga, Lekeu et al.).

    When did you last see a play on Broadway titled “Joseph”? And naming a concert series “Mostly Haydn” just doesn’t roll off the tongue right. “High on Haydn” could work in NYC, but it definitely wouldn’t fly in Peoria.

    I mean, Mozart is a MOVIE STAR fer chrissakes!

  • It is solely the fault of music directors, who could program Haydn a lot more. A positive example: when Dohnanyi went to Cleveland in the early 80’s he programmed many, many Haydn symphonies. He said playing them was tantamount to the orchestra taking a cure – it cleansed, revitalized, put into focus many skills that wither if the emphasis is always the 19th century repertoire. I also recall hearing wonderful Haydn by the Vienna Phil under Davis around 1990 (notably a fabulous 97th). Yes, some conductors are intimidated by the apparent Period Ensemble Monopoly… but a well played Haydn Symphony will, in my experience, simply be too successful to allow any pc criticism to discourage from playing more. The bottom line: Haydn must be played very cleanly, and it requires a significant amount of rehearsal if the ensemble isn’t used to playing this music. But the rewards…. Probably more conductors would champion these works if they realized that it would make subsequent performances of the romantic rep sound better…

  • À propos Mr. Hurshell’s comment, the late Joseph Silverstein said that
    “Haydn was dental floss for orchestras.”
    Playing Haydn well is the foundation for playing the orchestral literature that came after.

    • And Neeme Jarvi, who programmed Haydn symphonies often and performed them with wit, grace and spontaneity, called them etudes for the orchestra.

    • I remember an interview I read somewhere with Charles Dutoit where he was asked how he made the Montreal Symphony into an international-caliber orchestra. His response: program Haydn (and Mozart) as often as possible.

      My orchestra doesn’t play a lot of Mozart, and when we do, we don’t rehearse it much because it’s “easy to put together.” 🙁

  • Playing Haydn requires an imagination that few so classical musicians possess, being
    busy making artistic statements instead of making music .

  • It’s such a pity as there are many gems amongst the symphonies numbered in the 20s and 30s, but sadly it is usually only #22 that is played, even by chamber orchestras – the lovely adagio of #24, the wondrous opening of the first movement of #25, as well as the opening movements of #31 and #37, for example. Listen to Adam Fischer’s account with his superb Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra recorded in the wonderful acoustic of the Haydnsaal at Esterhazy. Better still, as Sue suggests above, go and listen to them in that most beautiful of concert venues.

  • In this interview Philippe Herreweghe shares his thoughts on Haydn, and why he is not more played in concerts:


    He believes that the big and dramatic romantic symphonies are more popular than Haydn and contemporary works. And that modern orchestras leave Haydn to the “specialists”. He also believes Haydn sounds better on period instruments.

    I think he has a point. And in my opinion there is an interesting difference between Haydn and Mozart. Both Haydn and Mozart can be played very well on both period and modern instruments. But Haydn often sounds best on period instruments. I think it is a little different with Mozart. Some of the period instrument recordings are very good indeed, but my favourite versions are usually played on modern instruments. It is a matter of taste of course, but i think this is interesting because they both belong to the viennese classical tradition. Some of their late works can perhaps be called “early romantic”, but basically they belong to the classical period.

    Perhaps it has to do with what the orchestras are used to playing. Modern orchestras have always played Mozart very often. Not only some of his symphonies, but some of his piano concertos and operas have been hugely popular. So many musicians and conductors have learned Mozart´s musical language very well. With a few exceptions Haydn’s concertos are played far less frequently and some of his sacred works and operas are hardly played on modern instruments at all (Although the oratorios The Seasons and The Creation have been quite popular). But some period instrument ensembles have played much of Haydns music; concertos, masses and operas. So perhaps they do know his music better that modern orchestras do.

    But i do agree with Norman, Haydns symphonies should be more played more by symphony orchestras.

    • The Albert Hall may not be the best venue for a Haydn Symphony, especially if you want to get the “cleanness” referred to earlier in this thread.

  • Haydn wrote primarily for a connaisseur and had his own highly specialised musicians at hands. As long as his production pleased his employer he didn’t have to make compromises. Mozart on the other hand took great care, as we know from his letters to his father, to always write in a stile understandable not only to musically educated listeners, but on some level to people with simpler tastes as well. Therefore there is still enough left to enjoy, even if a performance fails to do full justice to his genius. But a poorly rendered Haydn can turn into an embarassment much more easily, and is therefore a lot riskier for a conductor who is not quite sure what he is doing. This may be the explanation why every conductor I ever met speaks very highly of Haydn, but very few actually bother to really do it: too many risks, not enough easy successes.

    • Imagine what it would have been like for Haydn having THAT level of skill and musical appreciation from the “boss”!! Same for Beethoven; many Viennese aristocrats and patrons had excellent musicianship and sophisticated musical intelligence. It was the audiences generally which seemed to lack these things.

      Ah, those were the days!!

  • My favorite Haydn symphonies are numbers 68 through 81. What stunning works of genius these are, but sadly very rarely performed by any symphony orchestra.

    And I admit that I am one of those who likes to hear them played by a big orchestra. That said it may be no surprise that my preferred set is the Dorati.

    Could part of the problem of performing Haydn be what to pair him with on a concert program?

    BTW there is a priceless DVD of William Steinberg conducting the Boston Symphony in a performance of Haydn’s “Schoolmaster ” symphony #55. Just marvelous.

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