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Haydn: The Composer


The Father of Instrumental Music--The Quartets--The Symphonies-- The Salomon Set-The Sonatas--Church Music--Songs--Operas-- Orchestration--General Style--Conclusion.

 The Father of Instrumental Music

Haydn has been called "the father of instrumental music," and although rigid critics may dispute his full right to that title, on broad grounds he must be allowed to have sufficiently earned it. He was practically the creator of more than one of our modern forms, and there was hardly a department of instrumental music in which he did not make his influence felt. This was emphatically the case with the sonata, the symphony and the string quartet. The latter he brought to its first perfection. Before his time this particular form of chamber music was long neglected, and for a very simple reason. Composers looked upon it as being too slight in texture for the display of their genius. That, as has often been demonstrated, was because they had not mastered the art of "writing a fourpart harmony with occasional transitions into the pure polyphonic style--a method of writing which is indispensable to quartet composition--and also because they did not yet understand the scope and value of each individual instrument."

 The Quartet

It would be too much to say that even Haydn fully realized the capacities of each of his four instruments. Indeed, his quartet writing is often bald and uninteresting. But at least he did write in fourpart harmony, and it is certainly to him that we owe the installation of the quartet as a distinct species of chamber music. "It is not often," says Otto Jahn, the biographer of Mozart, "that a composer hits so exactly upon the form suited to his conceptions; the quartet was Haydn's natural mode of expressing his feelings." This is placing the Haydn quartet in a very high position among the products of its creator. But its artistic value and importance cannot well be over-estimated. Even Mozart, who set a noble seal upon the form, admitted that it was from Haydn he had first learned the true way to compose quartets; and there have been enthusiasts who regarded the Haydn quartet with even more veneration than the Haydn symphony. No fewer than seventyseven quartets are ascribed to him. Needless to say, they differ considerably as regards their style and treatment, for the first was written so early as 1755, while the last belongs to his later years. But they are all characterized by the same combination of manly earnestness, rich invention and mirthful spirit. The form is concise and symmetrical, the partwriting is clear and well-balanced, and a "sunny sweetness" is the prevailing mood. As a discerning critic has remarked, there is nothing in the shape of instrumental music much pleasanter and easier to listen to than one of Haydn's quartets. The best of them hold their places in the concert-rooms of to-day, and they seem likely to live as long as there are people to appreciate clear and logical composition which attempts nothing beyond "organized simplicity." [See W. J. Henderson's How Music Developed, p. 191: London, 1899]. In this department, as Goethe said, he may be superseded, but he can never be surpassed.

 The Symphony

For the symphony Haydn did no less than for the quartet. The symphony, in his young days, was not precisely the kind of work which now bears the name. It was generally written for a small band, and consisted of four parts for strings and four for wind instruments. It was meant to serve no higher purpose, as a rule, than to be played in the houses of nobles; and on that account it was neither elaborated as to length nor complicated as to development. So long as it was agreeable and likely to please the aristocratic ear, the end of the composer was thought to be attained.

Haydn, as we know, began his symphonic work under Count Morzin. The circumstances were not such as to encourage him to "rise to any pitch of real greatness or depth of meaning"; and although he was able to build on a somewhat grander scale when he went to Eisenstadt, it was still a little comfortable coterie that he understood himself to be writing for rather than for the musical world at large. Nevertheless, he aimed at constant improvement, and although he had no definite object in view, he "raised the standard of symphony--writing far beyond any point which had been attained before."

"His predecessors," to quote Sir Hubert Parry, "had always written rather carelessly and hastily for the band, and hardly ever tried to get refined and original effects from the use of their instruments, but he naturally applied his mind more earnestly to the matter in hand, and found out new ways of contrasting and combining the tones of different members of his orchestra, and getting a fuller and richer effect out of the mass of them when they were all playing. In the actual style of the music, too, he made great advances, and in his hands symphonies became by degrees more vigorous, and, at the same time, more really musical."

 But the narrow limits of the Esterhazy audience and the numbing routine of the performances were against his rising to the top heights of his genius.

 The Salomon Set

It was only when he came to write for the English public that he showed what he could really do with the matter of the symphony. In comparison with the twelve symphonies which he wrote for Salomon, the other, and especially the earlier works are of practically no account. They are interesting, of course, as marking stages in the growth of the symphony and in the development of the composer's genius. But regarded in themselves, as absolute and individual entities, they are not for a moment to be placed by the side of the later compositions. These, so far as his instrumental music is concerned, are the crowning glory of his life work. They are the ripe fruits of his long experience working upon the example of Mozart, and mark to the full all those qualities of natural geniality, humour, vigour and simple-heartedness, which are the leading characteristics of his style.

 The Sonata

Haydn's sonatas show the same advance in form as his symphonies and quartets. The older specimens of the sonata, as seen in the works of Biber, Kuhnau, Mattheson and others, contain little more than the germs of the modern sonata. Haydn, building on Emanuel Bach, fixed the present form, improving so largely upon the earlier, that we could pass from his sonatas directly to those of Beethoven without the intervention of Mozart's as a connecting link. Beethoven's sonatas were certainly more influenced by Haydn's than by Mozart's. Haydn's masterpieces in this kind, like those of Mozart and Beethoven, astonish by their order, regularity, fluency, harmony and roundness; and by their splendid development into full and complete growth out of the sometimes apparently unimportant germs. [See Ernst Pauer's Musical Forms.] Naturally his sonatas are not all masterpieces. Of the thirty-five, some are old-fashioned and some are quite second-rate. But, like the symphonies, they are all of historical value as showing the development not only of the form but of the composer's powers. One of the number is peculiar in having four movements; another is equally peculiar--to Haydn at least--in having only two movements. Probably in the case of the latter the curtailment was due to practical rather than to artistic reasons. Like Beethoven, with the two-movement sonata in C minor, Haydn may not have had time for a third! In several of the sonatas the partwriting strikes one as being somewhat poor and meagre; in others there is, to the modern ear, a surfeiting indulgence in those turns, arpeggios and other ornaments which were inseparable from the nature of the harpsichord, with its thin tones and want of sustaining power. If Haydn had lived to write for the richer and more sustained sounds of the modern pianoforte, his genius would no doubt have responded to the increased demands made upon it, though we may doubt whether it was multiplex enough or intellectual enough to satisfy the deeper needs of our time. As it is, the changes which have been made in sonata form since his day are merely changes of detail. To him is due the fixity of the form. [See "The Pianoforte Sonata," by J. S. Shedlock: London, 1895. Mr Shedlock, by selecting for analysis some of the most characteristic sonatas, shows Haydn in his three stages of apprenticeship, mastery and maturity.]

 Church Music

Of his masses and Church music generally it is difficult to speak critically without seeming unfair. We have seen how he explained what must be called the almost secular style of these works. But while it is true that Haydn's masses have kept their place in the Catholic churches of Germany and elsewhere, it is impossible, to Englishmen, at any rate, not to feel a certain incongruity, a lack of that dignity and solemnity, that religious "sense," which makes our own Church music so impressive. We must not blame him for this. He escaped the influences which made Bach and Handel great in religious music-the influences of Protestantism, not to say Puritanism. The Church to which he belonged was no longer guided in its music by the principles of Palestrina. On the contrary; it was tainted by secular and operatic influences; and although Haydn felt himself to be thoroughly in earnest it was rather the ornamental and decorate side of religion that he expressed in his lively music. He might, perhaps, have written in a more serious, lofty strain had he been brought under the noble traditions which glorified the sacred choral works of the earlier masters just named. In any case, his Church music has nothing of the historical value of his instrumental music. It is marked by many sterling and admirable qualities, but the progress of the art would not have been materially affected if it had never come into existence.


As a song-writer Haydn was only moderately successful, perhaps because, having himself but a slight acquaintance with literature, he left the selection of the words to others, with, in many cases, unfortunate results. The form does not seem to have been a favourite with him, for his first songs were not produced until so late as 1780. Some of the later compositions have, however, survived; and one or two of the canzonets, such as "My mother bids me bind my hair" and "She never told her love," are admirable. The three-part and the fourpart songs, as well as the canons, of which he thought very highly himself, are also excellent, and still charm after the lapse of so many years.


On the subject of his operas little need be added to what has already been said. Strictly speaking, he never had a chance of showing what he could do with opera on a grand scale. He had to write for a small stage and a small audience, and in so far he was probably successful. Pohl thinks that if his project of visiting Italy had been fulfilled and his faculties been stimulated in this direction by fresh scenes and a larger horizon, we might have gained "some fine operas." It is doubtful; Haydn lacked the true dramatic instinct. His placid, easy-going, contented nature could never have allowed him to rise to great heights of dramatic force. He was not built on a heroic mould; the meaning of tragedy was unknown to him.


Regarding his orchestration a small treatise might be written. The terms which best describe it are, perhaps, refinement and brilliancy. Much of his success in this department must, of course, be attributed to his long and intimate association with the Esterhazy band. In 1766, six years after his appointment, this band numbered seventeen instruments--six violins and viola, one violoncello, one double bass, one flute, two oboes, two bassoons and four horns. It was subsequently enlarged to twenty-two and twentyfour, including trumpets and kettledrums on special occasions. From 1776 to 1778 there were also clarinets. This gradual extension of resources may be taken as roughly symbolizing Haydn's own advances in the matter of orchestral development. When he wrote his first symphony in 1759 he employed first and second violins, violas, basses, two oboes and two horns; in his last symphony, written in 1795, he had at his command "the whole symphonic orchestra as it had stood when Beethoven took up the work of orchestral development." Between these two points Mozart had lived and died, leaving Haydn his actual debtor so far as regards the increased importance of the orchestra. It has been said that he learnt from Mozart the use of the clarinet, and this is probably true, notwithstanding the fact that he had employed a couple of clarinets in his first mass, written in 1751 or 1752. Both composers used clarinets rarely, but Haydn certainly did not reveal the real capacity of the instrument or establish its position in the orchestra as Mozart did.

From his first works onwards, he proceeded along the true symphonic path, and an orchestra of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, drums, and the usual strings fairly represents the result of his contributions to its development up to the first successful experiments of Mozart. The names of Mozart and Haydn ought in reality to be coupled together as the progenitors of the modern orchestral colouring. But the superiority must be allowed to attach to Haydn, inasmuch as his colouring is the more expansive and decided. Some of his works, even of the later period, show great reticence in scoring, but, on the other hand, as in "The Creation," he knew when to draw upon the full resources of the orchestra. It has been pointed out as worthy of remark that he was not sufficiently trustful of his instrumental army to leave it without the weak support of the harpsichord, at which instrument he frequently sat during the performance of his symphonies, and played with the orchestra, with extremely bad effect. [Compare The Orchestra and Orchestral Music, by W. J. Henderson: London, 1901.] In this, however, he merely followed the custom of his day.

 General Style

Of Haydn's general style as a composer it is hardly necessary to speak. To say that a composition is "Haydnish" is to express in one word what is well understood by all intelligent amateurs. Haydn's music is like his character--clear, straightforward, fresh and winning, without the slightest trace of affectation or morbidity. Its perfect transparency, its firmness of design, its fluency of instrumental language, the beauty and inexhaustible invention of its melody, its studied moderation, its child-like cheerfulness--these are some of the qualities which mark the style of this most genial of all the great composers.

That he was not deep, that he does not speak a message of the inner life to the latter-day individual, who, in the Ossianic phrase, likes to indulge in "the luxury of grief," must, of course, be admitted. The definite embodiment of feeling which we find in Beethoven is not to be found in him. It was not in his nature. "My music," says Schubert, "is the production of my genius and my misery." Haydn, like Mendelssohn, was never more than temporarily miserable. But in music the gospel of despair seldom wants its preachers. Today it is Tschaikowsky; to-morrow it will be another. Haydn meant to make the world happy, not to tear it with agony. "I know," he said, "that God has bestowed a talent upon me, and I thank Him for it. I think I have done my duty, and been of use in my generation by my works. Let others do the same."