[Franz] Joseph Haydn
The Seasons

Born: 31 March 1732, in Rohrau, Austria
Died: 31 May 1809, in Vienna

{Background} {Biography} {The Seasons} {Works} {Bibliography}

A Little Background

Poor Haydn.  Described by one would-be wit as “Mozart without the tunes or Beethoven without the rhetoric,” he is normally lumped together with those two composers as part of the trio that defined the “Classical” period in music (there is so much wrong with this characterization that I can’t even begin to go into it).  But in contrast to Mozart, who did write one gorgeous melting melodic line after another, and Beethoven, whose music does seem to define the heroic in music, Haydn just wrote, well, music. 

Really, really, good music, actually, that is incredibly clever, witty, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but music that’s far too little known by the general music lover, and certainly not performed nearly as often as it should be.  How many Haydn masses have you sung, for example?  But wow, his last half dozen are really good! 

There are all sorts of reasons behind this neglect, many of them stemming back to the simplistic characterization of Haydn as “Papa” Haydn—some kind of naive doofus who just happened to pave the way for the string quartet, the symphony, and Mozart and Beethoven while he was at it.  And I’m convinced that, since 1957, another weird reason is the specific catalogue by which many of Haydn’s works are known.  The guy who created the catalogue (first published in 1957) was Anthony von Hoboken, so you might think we would have “H.” numbers for Haydn (after Hoboken), the way we have “K.” numbers for Mozart (after Ludwig Ritter von Köchel, who listed all of Mozart’s works in what he thought was chronological order). 

Well, Hoboken went a different route.  He divided Haydn’s works into categories (Hob. I is symphonies, Hob. VIII is marches, Hob. XIX is pieces for mechanical clock, etc.); pieces in the categories themselves are sometimes arranged in presumed chronological order but sometimes follow other organizational schemes.  And in fairness, the catalogue is an incredible achievement, given that Haydn was an extremely prolific composer for a good fifty years.  But boy, how awkward those  numbers are.  It’s not so easy to pepper one’s conversation with remarks like “wow! that Hob. XVII: 4 gets me every time I hear it!”  So I, and pretty much everyone who writes about Haydn, use opus numbers or nicknames for pieces whenever possible.  (Imaginary “Introduction to Musicology” assignment: devise a better catalogue system for Haydn).


Haydn came from a working class background; Dad was a wheelwright, and Mom, before her marriage, was a cook.  But both parents were musical, and (rather impressively), all three surviving sons became professional musicians.  Haydn’s brother Johann was a tenor, and his brother Michael (1737–1806) was a composer.  And now a brief aside while I rave about Michael Haydn’s Requiem.

I sang this with a pick-up choir last year and it was truly a phenomenal experience—one of those sings where you look forward to every rehearsal, have the piece running through your head at all times, and are wiped out when the performance is over.  It’s considered an important influence on Mozart’s Requiem (both composers worked in Salzburg), but, frankly, who cares?  It’s a great piece no matter what.  There’s at least one decent recording of it, but I’d recommend (strongly, strongly, recommend) listening to the YouTube performance of the Helsinki Chamber Choir and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andres Mustonen.  It’s a very artsy video in what looks like an abandoned industrial warehouse; there’s funky lighting and some kind of video projection going on; the chorus appears to be wearing prison jumpsuits.  But what a performance!  And the choir is singing by heart, not a vocal score in sight.  Very, very powerful.

Okay, back to Michael’s older brother. 

Haydn’s talent was recognized early on, and he was sent to live with a relative for better musical opportunities.  But his big break out of the Austrian backwoods came around the age of 7, when he was taken off to Vienna to sing as a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, still a majestic landmark today (brother Michael eventually joined as well).  Haydn sang there twice daily for services, and at the imperial court on special occasions until his voice broke at around age 17 (people tended to reach puberty later in those days).  According to an early biographer, prior to this vocal change he was offered the opportunity to become a castrato.  Castrati have probably been around as long as people have devised ways to be horrible to one another, but for a period of several hundred years (sixteenth to  nineteenth centuries) they played an important role in the professional musical world.  The idea behind the musical castrato was that the high range of the boy’s voice would be combined with the lung power and capacity of an adult.  Castrati were important for the Catholic church (which didn't permit women to sing for a very long time) and even more so for opera, where an individual singer could become rich and famous.  And just in case you were wondering, they still had sex lives. 

What not everyone knows, however, is that while the undesirable effects of castration always occurred (always), the desired effect—retention of vocal beauty—didn’t necessarily follow.  Yes, this is truly sad; talk about gambling with your future!  Whether Haydn knew this or not, he demurred.  “Thanks, but no thanks,” was his response (or his father’s), and so the world (assuming this story is accurate) lost a possible opera singer but gained a very good composer.

Anyway, let’s remember that Haydn started as a choir singer, just like us.  He sang treble as a boy and tenor as an adult, and he knew from experience what worked well vocally (unlike that non-singer, Beethoven).  He firmly believed that composers needed to know how to sing. 

Once outside the nest of St. Stephen’s, Haydn scraped by for several years in Vienna as an impecunious freelance musician, but one who made some pretty good connections.  He knew the important librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782), and he was accompanist for the opera composer Nicola Porpora (1686–1768; Porpora was apparently nasty to Haydn, but the background in Italian and opera was helpful later on).  He played and sang in church choirs and pick-up ensembles and gave music lessons; one pupil was composer Marianna von Martínez. 

In 1758 Haydn got his first full-time job, as Kapellmeister to Count Morzin, who was based in Vienna in the winter and Bohemia in the summer.  Haydn wrote his first symphonies for the Count’s orchestra, and he also got married while working for the Count to the daughter of a wigmaker, in November 1760.  His wife, Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller, was the older sister of the woman Haydn really loved, but Therese (the sister) put herself out of the running by entering a convent.  Not too surprisingly, the marriage was not a success, but evidently both Haydn and his wife found consolation elsewhere.  No children, as might be expected. 

After Morzin lost his money and had to disband his orchestra, Haydn went to work for the family who would employ him pretty much for the rest of his life: the Esterházy princes.  As eighteenth-century music jobs go, this was a very good gig.  Yes, Haydn had to wear a uniform (blue and gold) and flatter his employers, but the princes were the richest of Hungarian nobility, most of them loved music, and they generally invested a good deal of money in their musical retinue.  In the early years, for example, Haydn had a permanent orchestra of around 15 excellent players (six violins; one viola, cello, and double bass; two oboes and two horns; one bassoon; sometimes one flute), augmented with extra players as necessary.  Over the next couple of decades the orchestra expanded to include at least 20 strings plus regular use of flute, trumpets, and timpani. 

Like other royalty of the age, the Esterházy family had multiple residences.  When Haydn was first employed (he started out as Vice-Kapellmeister, in 1761), these consisted of a palace in Vienna for the winter months and another one for the summer months in Eisenstadt, not that far distant from Vienna.  In 1766 a new castle was built in at Esterháza, much further away in Hungary, and that soon became the favored place of residence, for up to ten months a year.  A 400-seat opera  house was added in 1768, and a marionette theater, which performed puppet operas, was built in 1773.  Haydn was responsible for two opera performances a week; he wrote a couple dozen operas and other theatrical works of his own (none have ever been part of the standard repertoire) and conducted/arranged dozens more by other composers. 

Plenty of other music-making went on, with one or more formal concerts per week and sometimes daily chamber music; twice a day Haydn would check in with the prince to see what was required.  After the first prince, Paul Anton, died in 1762, his brother Nicolaus succeeded him, and Nicolaus was even more passionate about music than his brother had been.  He was himself a musician, playing an instrument known as the baryton, an unusual bass string instrument popular in Hungary.  As a result, Haydn wrote lots (and lots, and lots) of music that used the baryton, and even learned how to play it himself so that he could play duets with his employer (and manage the tricky part about not being obviously so much better on the instrument than Nicolaus, which of course he was). 

In 1766, after the death of the previous Kapellmeister, Haydn was promoted to that position (he had been doing most of the work anyway since his arrival), and on 1 January 1779 he began a new contract that, for the first time, stated that the music Haydn wrote belonged to Haydn, not to the prince, which was formerly the case.  This meant that Haydn could now take advantage of publications and outside commissions.  The prince probably realized that having a famous Kapellmeister rebounded to the prince’s credit. 

And Haydn was well on his way to becoming famous.  Even though his only travel at that time was the Vienna-Eisenstadt-Esterháza triangle, unauthorized publications had been appearing for years.  These, and his own official publications, were to make him the most famous composer in Europe before the end of the 1780s.  And like many famous composers, his name was stuck on a variety of pieces that weren’t even his, including the famous “Op. 3” string quartets that were probably written by Hoffstetter.  And Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn would be more accurately titled Variations on a Theme Thought to be by Haydn but Not Really.  Misattributions like this go back at least to the 16th century and Josquin; the quip goes that Josquin wrote more pieces after he died than during his lifetime, given the frequency with which his name appeared on new works. 

Haydn acknowledged his relative musical isolation in a famous statement: “I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to become original.”  This is nicely modest; a lesser talent could have been in the same circumstances and simply turned out derivative music based on works by other composers (although Haydn composed constantly, music by other composers was also performed at court).  And of course Haydn had an annual infusion of the latest styles in the prince’s winter visits to Vienna.  It was on one of these, probably in 1784, that Haydn met the 27- or 28-year-old Mozart; Haydn was then 51 or 52.  The two hit it off immediately, each recognizing a peer—in fact, the only real peers they would ever come across (Beethoven, much slower to develop than Mozart, was too young in his early encounters with Haydn to be a true peer).

Haydn praised Mozart to his (Mozart’s) father; the two played in a string quartet together (Haydn on first violin; Mozart on viola); and they were to remain friends until Mozart’s untimely death in 1791.  Inspired by Haydn’s excellent Op. 33 string quartets, Mozart composed his own set of six (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, 465, all fantastic) and dedicated them to Haydn—then a highly unusual gesture, as composers normally dedicated works to rich people who could further their careers.  Here, as elsewhere, however, Haydn was an anomaly, since other composers also dedicated works to Haydn, including the young Beethoven (his Op. 2 piano sonatas). 

In 1790 Prince Nicolaus died, and his successor, Prince Anton (for once not much of a music lover), shut down the opera theater and disbanded the orchestra.  Haydn thus readily accepted the invitation of impresario Johann Peter Salomon to visit the major musical metropolis of London and write half a dozen symphonies while he was there.  He left Vienna on December 15 and arrived in London on New Year’s day (meeting Beethoven when he passed through Bonn). 

London was a huge success, and his symphonies (Nos. 93–98) were a smash. He heard Handel oratorios sung by massive forces in Westminster Abbey, and Oxford gave him an honorary degree (Haydn’s Symphony 92 is called the “Oxford” Symphony since it was performed at Oxford while Haydn was being honored). 

Back in Vienna in 1792, he took on Beethoven as a pupil for just over a year in what is generally regarded as Not The Most Successful Pedagogical Relationship Ever.  The teacher/pupil relation ended when Haydn made a second successful trip to London, beginning in 1794, where he wrote six more symphonies (99–104), cleverly requiring that they be performed on the second half on each concert so that his work would always outdo whatever appeared earlier. These last ones were written for an orchestra of about 60 players (a huge number for the time) that included those new-fangled clarinets. 

After Prince Anton died that same year, Haydn considered remaining in London, but returned to Vienna in 1795 to take up his Kapellmeister position again, now for Prince Nicolaus II—who, like his forerunner of the same name, was again a big music lover.  But now Haydn’s duties were drastically reduced, basically consisting of the need to write a name day mass for Princess Maria Hermenegild, the Prince’s wife.  Haydn wrote six of these for the September 8 feast, and they are all terrific works.  After Haydn stopped writing, Prince Nicolaus commissioned Beethoven to continue the tradition, but he hated the result, Beethoven’s Mass in C.  He considered it “unbearably ridiculous and detestable” (despite its obvious debt to Haydn). 

In addition to the masses, Haydn’s other late music consists of string quartets and the two great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.  So we choral singers can puff ourselves up a bit about his attention to our repertoire at the end of his life.

Haydn stopped writing in 1803, having finished only the two interior ("easy") movements of his final string quartet, Op. 103.  He was largely housebound thereafter, and the Napoleonic Wars meant that, at the time of his death in 1809, Vienna was occupied by the French (Napoleon did order a guard of honor for Haydn’s house).  The Requiem sung at his memorial service was that of Mozart, not of his brother. 

The Seasons

Haydn’s experience of Handel in Westminster Abbey helped inspire his two late oratorios (he wrote one oratorio before this, his Il ritorno di Tobia from the 1770s).  The Creation (Die Schöpfung) set a libretto by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a Dutch diplomat and music lover/patron who was an important figure in Viennese musical life.  The text drew on both the Bible and Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost.  Premiered in 1798, it was a staggering success right from the start and has never lost its popularity. 

Haydn happily signed on for the next joint effort, van Swieten’s version of The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten).  First planned in 1799, it received a private premiere on 24 April 1801 and its first public performance on May 19. At first it seemed as if it were destined for the same success as The Creation.  But it slipped in popularity over the course of the nineteenth century and has never held the same position as The Creation.  The reasons behind this decrease in popularity were, initially, its lower “moral” character than that of The Creation (and indeed, the norm is for oratorios to be on sacred subjects, usually from the Old Testament).  Another big criticism was the heavy and obvious text-painting—exactly what many of us enjoy in singing this work.  Despite this, both The Creation and The Seasons were behind the impulse for the founding of Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society in 1815, with the goal being regular performance of Handel’s and Haydn’s oratorios; the Society still exists today. 

The Seasons is based on a lengthy poem by Scottish author James Thomson, published one season at a  time between 1726 and 1728.  It remained quite popular for almost 150 years, with various lavish publications appearing over the decades.  The poem celebrates an idealized pastoral life; Thomson probably never got up at 5:00 a.m.to milk a cow in his life (too busy writing the lyrics to Rule, Britannia).  In 1745 Barthold Heinrich Brockes translated it into German, and that is the version that van Swieten drew on, shortening it considerably.  To perform it in English, of course, means a translation back into English from van Swieten’s/Brockes’s German.  This upcoming concert will be the third time I’ve sung the work, each time to a different translation.   O noble toil! 

Here’s Haydn’s layout:

Spring (Der Frühling)

  1. Introduction depicting the passage from Winter to Spring
    Recitative: Behold, the blust’ry winter flies (Simon, Lukas, Hanne)
  2. Chorus: Come, gentle Spring (Komm, holder Lenz)
  3. Recitative: From heaven’s vault, now shines (Simon)
  4. Aria: At dawn the eager plowman goes (Simon)
  5. Recitative: The farmer now has done his work  (Lukas)
  6. Trio and Chorus: Be thou gracious bounteous heaven (Sei nun gnädig)
  7. Recitative: Our prayer is heard on high (Hanne)
  8. Trio and Chorus: O, how lovely is the landscape (O wie lieblich)

Summer (Der Sommer)

  1. Introduction depicting the dawn of day
    Recitative: In dewy stillness (Lukas, Simon)
  2. Aria: The shepherd gathers all his sheep (Simon)
    Recitative: The glow of morning paints the sky (Hanne) 
  3. Trio and Chorus: And now ascends the sun (Sie steigt herauf)
  4. Recitative: The fields are alive with colorful crowds (Simon, Lukas)
  5. Cavatina: The earth succumbs to parching drought (Lukas)
  6. Recitative: How welcome, then, the shadowed grove (Hanne)
  7. Aria: What a haven for the weary (Hanne)
  8. Recitative: Now see! arising in the sultry air (Simon, Lukas, Hanne)
  9. Chorus: Ah! the thunderstorm draws near (Ach, das Ungewitter naht)
  10. Trio and Chorus: The gloomy clouds now fade away (Die düst'ren Wolken trennen sich)

Autumn (Der Herbst)

  1. Introduction depicting the farmer’s satisfaction at the abundant harvest
    Recitative: What in springtime’s blossom (Hanne, Lukas, Simon)
  2. Trio and Chorus: So nature thus rewards (So lohnet die Natur)
  3. Recitative: Look there, in yonder hazelwood (Hanne, Simon, Lukas)
  4. Duet: Yes beauties of the town, look here (Lukas, Hanne)
  5. Recitative: Take time to note the new-mown fields (Simon)
  6. Aria: Look far across the meadows now (Simon)
  7. Recitative: The rabbits now, and hares must flee (Lukas)
  8. Chorus: Hark! hear the sound of the horn (Hört das laute Getön)
  9. Recitative: The heavy-laden vines rejoice (Hanne, Simon, Lukas)
  10. Chorus: Bravo, bravo, the wine is here! (Juhhe, der Wein ist da!)

Winter (Der Winter)

  1. Introduction depicting the thick fogs with which winter begins
    Recitative: The year, now dying, sinks to rest (Simon, Hanne)
  2. Cavatina: Light and life in sadness languish
  3. Recitative: By icy chains the sea is held (Lukas)
  4. Aria: A traveller stands there (Lukas)
  5. Recitative: As he comes near (Lukas, Hanne, Simon)
  6. Song with Chorus: Whirling, twirling, whirling (Hanne and Chorus) (Knurre, schnurre)
  7. Recitative: Now the flaxen thread is wound (Lukas)
  8. Song with Chorus: A maiden innocent (Hanne and Chorus) (Ein Mädchen, das auf Ehre hielt)
  9. Recitative: Now from the east a terrifying ice storm (Simon)
  10. Aria and Recitative: Behold thyself, deluded man (Simon)
  11. Trio and Double Chorus: Then dawns the great and glorious morn (Dann bricht der grosse Morgen an)

Haydn’s work traverses the seasons from the birth of the year in Spring to its waning in Winter.  A large amount of music is entrusted to the soloists, with the chorus playing a smaller role than it does in, say, Elijah or Messiah.  The soloists are three: the wise farmer father Simon (bass), his daughter Hanne (soprano), and her extremely well-behaved suiter Lukas (tenor).  No alto/mezzo soloist—boo!  There’s lots of moralizing, but evidently not enough to keep those nineteenth-century critics happy. 

The chorus gets three numbers per season (more or less, depending on how you want to divide things).  We close each season and play key roles within.  Our gentle chorus practically opens the whole piece (Thomson seems to have intuited Spring in Rochester, with his warning “But yet do not rejoice too soon, for oft enwrapped in mist and fog the winter will return and spread o'er bud and flow’r his chilling frost.”  Too, too true). 

We get two more sweet numbers in Spring; as James Webster points out, the fugue at the end of #6 is reminiscent of the “Quam olim Abrahae” section of Mozart’s Requiem.  Our final chorus, sweet to start with, moves immediately into the more muscular “Wonderful, powerful,” which Webster calls “perhaps the most massive chorus Haydn ever composed.”  This is especially fun to sing as our praises to God start getting a lot more interesting harmonically around m. 269, and get really interesting at m. 280 (the orchestra spells out Db F A C while we sing octave Fs; we have a Bb major key signature here, by the way) and still more interesting at m. 282, where we move to Bb over the orchestra’s funky Gb Bb D F; sopranos add a little spice here by heading up to the high Bb.  And then a nice strong cadence on Bb (reiterated multiple times) to bring Spring to a resounding and dutifully sacred close. 

In summer we get to bring the sun up, and then later on we have the requisite thunderstorm, appropriately appreciated in contemporary reviews.  Fun fact: the Esterhazys owned a copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which are also ordered Spring / Summer / Fall / Winter, and which also include a summer thunderstorm; Haydn wasn't navigating alone here.  And the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s sixth symphony, his Pastoral, was in turn inspired by Haydn’s storm.  And, as with Beethoven, the storm is followed by the restoration of peace (complete with croaking frogs in the orchestra); the Vespers bell tolls (Vespers is the monastic worship held at sundown), so that Summer, like Spring, ends with a nod to religion. 

Once more the chorus practically opens Autumn with our paean to noble toil.  It is impossible to resist a Marxist take on this number, with the effete writer Thomson talking up the wonders of hard work (work he certainly wasn’t going to do) done by people not of his social class, the people who actually keep the world going.  We could also take the view that hard work (in anything) often yields results, but it’s not as if the mythical Simon, Hanne, and Lukas got to choose their professions.  And even Haydn thought the idea of a chorus ode to toil was absurd. 

Our other two Autumn choruses are fun set pieces: one hunting chorus (not fun if you are a vegetarian, of course) and one drinking chorus (fun even if you don’t drink).  Haydn used real hunting calls for the prominent horn part in the former, in a rollicking 6/8 meter, and the latter is artfully written so that we should sound drunker and drunker as the section unfolds (but not so drunk, of course, that we miss our entrances;  Haydn wants us to stagger in at very specific times).  There’s some thought that this chorus may have inspired bits of Verdi’s Falstaff.  Incidentally, songs about hunting and drinking go back to the Middle Ages.

The first two choruses in Winter are also set pieces.  “Whirling, twirling” is part of a long line of songs to be sung while spinning that, again, go back to the Middle Ages.  Did you ever stop to think about what spinning really entails?  Prior to the nineteenth century and the invention of the sewing machine, if you wanted clothes, you made them yourself by hand (or had someone else make them for you).  And you didn’t just make the clothes by hand; you made the darn fabric, too.  No hopping over to Ivy Thimble (for those readers outside of Rochester, this is a very nice fabric store) and buying pretty prints.  And how did you make the fabric?  Well, first you had to spin the thread, which (before widespread use of the spinning wheel) was done with a hand-held spindle.  Then, after you had spun sufficient thread, you went to your loom and wove that into cloth.  And only then could you start making that cloth into the clothes that you sewed by hand.  There are all sorts of bad things you can say about capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, but I vastly prefer spending my time writing about choral music for fellow singers than spinning thread to weave into cloth to hand-sew all my clothes (I say this as someone who enjoys sewing and quilting, but I do these activities using a sewing machine and cloth that someone else made). 


The second Winter chorus also draws on a song tradition that, yet again, goes back into the Middle Ages: the creepy upper-class guy (knight or nobleman) who wants to use a peasant girl/shepherdess as his sexual plaything.  Fortunately the young woman in Winter tricks the jerk in question and gets the last laugh.

Whew again! 

The final chorus once more invokes God, with the gates of heaven opening and splendor revealed therein.  Who gets to enter?  Why, those who help the poor and weak (hmm...)  And as with almost every other chorus in this work, this one ends with fugal writing, but now with snappier rhythms than earlier—challenging and fun!  We ask for God to make us strong and brave (and help us get those rapid turns right, while we’re at it), and we end with a big Amen.  Maybe none of this text is from the Bible, but Thomson/Brockes/van Swieten never miss an opportunity to keep God in the picture for both performers and listeners.  And the religious overtones of the text held resonance for Haydn, who was seriously ill during the winter of 1800–1801, and who said that the final aria, “Behold thyself, deluded man,” referred to himself. 

Haydn specialist James Webster wrote that “The Seasons outdoes The Creation: it is longer, more virtuosic, with more run-on movement pairs, more varied, more comprehensive....The Seasons, like so many pastorals, transcends its ostensibly ‘lower’ subject.  It is one of the final glories of a tradition that is more than high enough.”  Haydn thought it was good, too.  When someone asked Haydn towards the end of his life which of his works were likely to endure, he answered “When a master has produced one or two outstanding works, his fame is assured; my Creation will survive, and probably The Seasons as well.”

Looks like he was right.


Haydn wrote scads of music, but I’m going to skip the 126 baryton trios etc. and talk about pieces you are more likely to run across.


Haydn is sometimes called the “Father of the Symphony.”  This is not completely inaccurate: he didn’t invent the symphony, but his works did go a long way towards standardizing formal expectations.  In general (I’m about to oversimplify here), the works moved from a three-movement Fast Slow Fast layout modelled on the Italian opera overture to a four-movement scheme, with fast first movement (often in sonata form, sometimes with a slow introduction), slow second movement, minuet and trio for the third movement, and fast fourth movement (could be many things: sonata form, rondo, hybrid sonata/rondo, variations, etc.).  This basic idea held through the nineteenth century, though the order of the inner two movements switched, the minuet/trio turned into a scherzo, and the weight of the work moved from the first movement to the last.  Over Haydn’s working life, and largely because of his compositions, symphonies gradually increased in length, complexity, and number of performers required.

The number of Haydn symphonies is around 106 (there are some authenticity puzzles), with 104 of these numbered in a not-completely-accurate chronological order.  Famous ones include Nos. 6, 7, and 8, known as Matin, Midi, and Soir (French for morning, noon, and evening); Nos. 82–87, written on commission for a large orchestra in Paris and known therefore as the “Paris” symphonies, and the two sets of “London” symphonies written for his two visits to that city, Nos. 93–98 and 99–104.  And there’s also the famous “Farewell Symphony,” #45, where orchestra members leave the stage one by one in the last movement, blowing out their candles as they go and leaving just a violin duet, the idea being that the Prince needed reminding that it was time to leave the wilds of Hungary and return to Vienna.  But they’re all interesting; “what is Haydn going to do now?” I always wonder when I listen to a new one.  I especially like Nos. 44 and 46, the “Trauersymphonie” (mourning symphony) and the “Passionsymphonie” (passion symphony, a nineteenth-century nickname).  These are in E minor and F minor respectively; Haydn, like everyone else in the latter half of the eighteenth century, normally wrote in major keys, so it’s always noteworthy and effective when he turned to minor.  Incidentally, although we tend to think of most of these symphonies as “abstract” music, music that is just “music” and is not telling a story or referring to anything else, Haydn and his contemporaries often thought about other things entirely when composing; Haydn said he often “portrayed moral characters” in his symphonies. 


Haydn spent much less time writing concertos than symphonies, and a lot of them are lost anyway.  The best known are his trumpet concerto, his Op. 21 D major keyboard concerto (Hob. XVIII:11), and two gorgeous cello concertos. 

String Quartets

Haydn is often considered the “father” of the string quartet.  Chamber music written for two violins, viola, and cello did not originate with him, but, as with his symphonies, his many works came to define the genre, which assumed a high level of prestige.  Even composers we hardly think of as chamber music devotees felt they had to write one, e.g. Verdi.

In Austria the quartet was mostly done in private surroundings, but in London it was often performed in public concert settings.  Goethe has left a wonderful definition of the genre as a conversation “among four reasonable people.”  Haydn’s quartets, all fascinating conversations, were typically composed and published in groups of six, with care taken to vary keys, modes, and character within each group.  His quartets begin with the early (and recently discovered) “Op. 0” (a single quartet), followed by Opp. 9, 17, 20 (this last a particularly yummy group), 33, 42 (a single quartet), 50, 54/55, 64, 71/74, 76 (his most substantial collection; #3 includes variations on his famous “Emperor’s Hymn"), 77 (two quartets), and 103 (a single incomplete quartet).  All good!

Works with Keyboard

An underexplored, underperformed area, well worth getting to know; many of the sonatas were composed for talented female amateurs.  Try these sonatas: Hob. XVI 20, c minor; 23, F major; 35, C major; 43, Ab major; 46, Ab major; 49, Eb major; 51, D major; 52, Eb major.  And this fantasia: Hob. XVII 4, C major.  And the f minor variations, Hob. XVII:6.  And these keyboard trios: Hob. XV f1, f minor; 12, e minor; 22, Eb major; 25, G major; 34, E major; 35, A major.

Choral Music

Early choral works include the Stabat mater (1767), an early Te deum (ca. 1764), the cantata Applausus (1768), and a very early Salve regina in E (1756) considered by some to by his first masterwork.  He also has a series of early/earlier masses, including:

  • Missa brevis, 1749?
  • Missa Cellensis (Cäcilienmesse), 1766
  • Missa Sunt bona mixta malis (fragmentary), 1768
  • Great Organ Mass, 1769?
  • Missa Sancti Nicolai, 1772
  • Little Organ Mass,1773-1777?
  • Mariazellermesse, 1782

The late great symphonic masses, written for the September 8 nameday of Princess Maria Hermenegild and each taking a good 45 or so minutes to perform (with chorus, soloists, and orchestra), appeared as follows:

  • 1796—Missa in tempore belli (Mass in Time of War) / Paukenmesse (Timpani Mass), in C
  • 1797—Heiligmesse, in Bb (Holy Mass; written in 1796) 
  • 1798—Missa in angustiis (Mass in [Time of] Distress) / Lord Nelson Mass; not the original title), in d minor
  • 1799—Theresienmesse, in Bb  (Therese Mass, referring to Empress Maria Therese; not the original title) 
  • 1801—Schöpfungsmesse, in Bb (Creation Mass)
  • 1802—Harmoniemesse, in Bb (“Wind Band” Mass)

Other choral works include a late Te Deum for the Empress, a setting of the Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross (Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze; the original version was purely orchestral), and the famous “Emperor’s Hymn,” Gott erhalte Franz der Kaiser, which eventually became the national anthem of both Austria and Germany.  In the 1920s, with Kaisers long gone, new lyrics in three stanzas were added.  The Nazis besmirched the tune by using the first stanza exclusively: “Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles” (Germany, Germany, over all); now only the third stanza is used. 

And finally, we have the two great oratorios, Die Schöpfung (The Creation) and Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons). 

Haydn was criticized for writing cheerful sacred music, but his excellent response was that his heart leapt with joy when contemplating God, so his music did as well.

Other Vocal Music

To be honest, I don’t know any of this music, but I have read that the thirteen late part songs are quite good (Hob. XXVc 1-9; XXVb 1-4), and that the following songs are worth knowing: Das Leben ist ein Traum; Sailor’s Song; She never told her love; Piercing eyes; The Spirit’s Song. 


For more information on Haydn, things to read include:

  • The Cambridge Companion to Haydn (edited by Caryl Clark)
  • Haydn and His World (edited by Elaine Sisman)
  • Haydn Studies (edited by W. Dean Sutcliffe)
  • and the massive five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works by H.C. Robbins Landon

December 2018