40 Haydn Symphonies

I used the top 40 entries in this ranking of all 104 Haydn symphonies, from ClassicFM. Oddly, the one that’s likely my very favorite, No. 45 (“the Farewell”) wasn’t on this list at all.

40. Symphony No. 91
Vivacious–alternately pastoral and balletic; middle movements reminded me of Beethoven’s symphony 6–not very similar, but in the same genre. Ebulliently positive! Grade: B (7/16)

39. Symphony No. 27
Even more energetic than the last one, this little symphony is downright assertive–an in-your-face slice of life adventure that clearly, cleanly illustrates the basic narrative pattern, including a sweet daydream center and a rousing, victorious finale. Simple, but not insubstantial. Grade: B- (7/16)

38. Symphony No. 86
I enjoyed the sprightly, peppy final movement, but even that felt…uninspired. A good listen, but nothing special. Grade: C+ (7/17)

37. Symphony No. 100 (‘Military’)
The ClassicFM reviewer said, “If you played the ‘Military’ as you were going into battle, you’d be more likely to ponder the true meaning of combat, the myriad social and emotional implications for those who partake, the poetry you might write as a result.” Way wrong. The 2nd movement especially is thoroughly martial in spirit, and the whole work is aggressive (but, being Haydn, never quite violent). A solid and rousing piece! Grade: B (7/17)

36. Symphony No. 53 (‘L’imepriale’)
The ClassicFM reviewer called this Haydn’s “most overtly stately symphony. You can pretty much march around the room in a wig to this one for the duration.” I think that’s too limited, too narrow. Only the very beginning and much of the central episodes sound like that to me. I also hear the same dreaming gestation at the core, as well as the bubbling triumph so typical of his final movements–this symphony, as usual, is a hearty slice of joie de vivre. Grade: B (7/17)

35. Symphony No. 14
My reaction here surely shows my illiterate ignorance of music. I didn’t identify the progressive genius in the final movement extolled by the ClassicFM reviewer as well as on the Wikipedia entry for this work. I found this whole piece simplistic, predictable…and often dull. Grade: D (7/17)

34. Symphony No. 99
What a huge difference going from early in his career with the last entry to late in his career with this one! THIS is a masculine symphony, full of controlled strength, and a joyous celebration of it. Great stuff! Grade: A (7/18)

33. Symphony No. 82 (‘The Bear’)
The reviewer’s comments about the manliness of this piece are spot on. I listened to the “Composers by Numbers” version on YouTube at first, and found it pretty blah, but then I tried the live one linked above, and liked it much better. I love watching an orchestra play. The orchestra is one of history’s greatest inventions. Grade: B+ (7/21)

32. Symphony No. 61
The reviewers called this one “bracing,” and I think that’s a good fit, if too stuffy. It’s more like “vivacious.” This is another one full of joie de vivre, bookended by movements so sharp they almost sting. Grade: B+ (7/30)

31. Symphony No. 79
There must be more going on here than my untrained ear picked up on. This one seemed decent and fine–bland, backhanded compliments. The general tone came across as pastoral, and I always enjoy that. Still, nothing here was especially surprising or pleasing. I liked it, but didn’t love it. Maybe if I got to know it better… Grade: B (7/30)

30. Symphony No. 90
Now THIS is a masterpiece! I can’t believe it’s only #30 on the reviewer’s list. I love how perfectly in thematic harmony the slow movements are with the faster ones. And the series of false “Return of the King” endings are a bold joke. Finally, the music itself is simply so superior here–this is quite a dazzling feast of audio excellence. Grade: A+ (7/30)

29. Symphony No. 60 (‘Il distratto’)
This is a symphony for anyone who thinks all classical music sounds the same. I wasn’t sure about this one at first, because it’s so very different–I thought it sounded weirdly operatic, then I looked it up and learned that it was based largely on music Haydn had done for just such a performance. This is Haydn’s version of Love’s Labours Lost or Ulysses or Infinite Jest: a riotous celebration of intellectual language itself, a multi-genre party unlike any other I’ve yet heard–basically a comedy, but with plenty to say to the careful student. I suspect I could listen to this a hundred times and still not plumb its depths. I picture myself listening to this while jogging, to keep my mind actively “distracted” from the exercise. Wow, what a masterpiece! Grade: A+ (8/1)

28. Symphony No. 101 (‘The Clock’)
Listening to this after #60 may be a mistake, as I’m still dizzy from that one. Even my standard two listens here left this one sounding plain and average by comparison, largely because its style is so much more familiar. Still, solid work, and deserves more attention from me. For now…Grade: B+ (8/1)

27. Symphony No. 87
Vivacious and confident, but maybe not quite sublime. I liked it, but listened to it three times and still didn’t love it. One of the comments on YouTube raved about the 2nd movement, not the kind of thing I tend to focus on too intently, but this time I did, and yes, I adored it. This might be the first symphony ever where an adagio movement impressed me more than the others. Like all of these, I’m sure, it demands many more listens. Grade: B (8/2)

26. Symphony No. 98
My goodness, I love listening to Haydn. I’m so lucky to have found a composer whose catalogue connects with me so clearly. The reviewer called this one brutish and violent, but I just didn’t hear that anywhere. I heard pleasant ideas developed in thematic harmony across four movements, each one a perfect slice of charm on its own. Really, I don’t see how anyone could not adore this. Grade: A (8/2)

25. Symphony No. 59 (‘Fire’)
For some reason, I just didn’t connect with this one. As with all of these, I listened to it twice, but I tried a different recording the second time, just in case that was it, but no. It’s clearly a great work, as are all of these, but what can I say? I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe that’s a product of listening to so many of these so quickly? Note to self: try Haydn 59 again some time. Grade: C (8/2)

24. Symphony No. 96 (‘The Miracle’)
I listened to this twice and didn’t think it was very special, but I tried it a third time in a different, live recording, and really loved it. This symphony, like so many others here already, is a burst of life in musical form, a passionate exultation of existence itself so exuberant that it practically predicts Romanticism. The finale actually made me say, “Wow,” out loud. Grade: A (8/6)

23. Symphony No. 22 (‘The Philosopher’)
I listened to this one a few times, in different versions, until I finally admitted to myself that I just don’t like it. I find the famous first movement to be ponderous, wooden, and bafflingly dull. The rest follows suit, thought the finale is quite a bit better. Overall, this piece seemed rather anti-Haydn to me–the joyous energy I love in his work is mostly missing. The nickname for this one is appropriate, sadly–a narrow bit of navel gazing is all I got out of it. Grade: C- (8/8)

22. Symphony No. 102
How does the reviewer only have this at #22? At first I didn’t know how to process this massive powerhouse of a symphony, but I’ve learned that sometimes my initial reaction to masterpieces is one of skeptical doubt only because the quantity of disparate material–the genius level of complexity–turns me off with the demands it places on me. But on repeated close study, I start to chip away at the magnitude of it, and slowly come to respect, then appreciate, then love a great work I by then know well.

Such was true here. I knew early into this one that it would have a lot of subplots (I’m a book reader and that’s how I think), still united by a general theme–like the great masterpieces of literature often are. I found that switching to a live recording–Leonard Bernstein’s 1971–was helpful–it felt more immediate that way. Anyway, here’s a giant masterpiece–it reminded me of Mozart’s Jupiter. I love how the truly central Classical works can be such massively omnivorous pieces: this symphony is valedictory at times and subtly melancholy at others. It’s the best of many moods. Really, this is one that insists on being heard time and time again, for years. Grade: A+ (8/13)

21. Symphony No. 81
I liked this one, but didn’t love it. Sure, it’s s technical masterpiece, an absolute textbook example of classical wizardry, but it just felt lacking in that magical zest that I so often find in Haydn. I was pleasantly surprised by the pizzicato section, though. Grade: A- (8/15)

20. Symphony No. 25
Not sure at all how this one got to be #20 on the list. It’s good, but nothing special. Nothing at all distinguishes it to me–just another basic classical symphony. I may not have even thought it was Haydn if I hadn’t known it was his. Super meh. Grade: C- (8/15)

19. Symphony No. 97
Ah yes, now this is more like it! A profoundly superior work of classical genius. It begins and ends with confident bombast, and you know that my favorite slow movements are cerebral fantasias on the work’s themes. This is everything I want in a symphony. I listened to it three times, in two different versions, not because I needed to figure out my thoughts but just because I really loved it. Grade: A+ (8/16)

18. Symphony No. 20
This is a sweet, serviceable symphony. An early work by Haydn is still a major pleasure, and a technical achievement worthy of appreciation and study, but with 97 still ringing in my ears, this just didn’t have enough artistic force to arrest my attention and leave an impression. Just as with other items on this list, I really liked it, but I didn’t love it. Grade: B+ (8/18)

17. Symphony No. 84 (‘In nomine Domini’)
Another beautiful, breezy composition. I enjoyed it, no doubt, but never really felt anything especially powerful in it. This is the symphonic version of a summer blockbuster popcorn movie, perhaps–entertaining, but insubstantial. Yet again, though, I admit that repeated listenings beyond these two might change my mind. Grade: B+ (8/21)

16. Symphony No. 71
I listened to this a few times in a different versions, and still couldn’t get into it. The ClassicFM reviewer called it dark and melancholy, but I didn’t hear that at all. For some reason, the whole experience of this one was a dud for me. No special reason–maybe I expect too much by now? It seems like a fine piece. Life is mysterious. Grade: B- (8/26)

15. Symphony No. 103 (‘Drumroll’)
Very enjoyable–yes, he’s innovating at this late stage of his career, and the effect is impressive–I didn’t get swept up in this one, but I enjoyed it immensely, and look forward to many more listenings! Grade: A (8/27)

14. Symphony No. 31 (‘Hornsignal’)
A very cool work–quite different from most of Haydn’s, due to the emphasis on horns here. To me, this gave the piece an unusually dignified atmosphere, even regal at times, though it still retain the typically joie de vivre with which Haydn writes. I really liked the variations in the last movement. Grade: B+ (8/28)

13. Symphony No. 21
This is a simple yet enjoyable little symphony. It’s creative in structure, but not really in content. Grade: B (8/28)

12. Symphony No. 104 (‘London’)
Perfect, textbook Haydn. Invigorating declarations, then explorations of a theme, a pastoral interlude, and a profound, aggressive triumph of a final act. I found this to be surprisingly simplistic–almost one-dimensional–on my first listening; the second opened up a great deal of it, especially towards the end. Rich and full-bodied, this is Haydn’s peppy brew made at full strength. I still didn’t quite love it as much as some other pieces, but this is undeniably legendary. Grade: A (8/28)

11. Symphony No. 93
I listened to two versions of this, and felt that something was a little off, and then I found this third version, which is faster and more bombastic than the first two. It’s like comparing forced reverence with the dizzying freedom of relief–the third version (the one linked to above) leans into the light-hearted, even comic, aspects of the symphony. And I dig it. Still not quite a perfect masterpiece, but fun and valuable and totally enjoyable. Grade: A (8/29)

10. Symphony No. 39
I guess I tend to find the earlier symphonies fairly unremarkable, though 39 is pretty well into the canon, but I couldn’t help comparing this to the stylistically similar no. 45, which I remember liking even more (though this list doesn’t even have it in the top 40). Grade: B (8/29)

9. Symphony No. 64 (’Tempora mutantur’)
The ClassicFM reviewer said, “As it stands, though, it’s a fairly blustery work, with the Largo standing out as the key achievement here – solemn, morose and in tune with that delightfully emo tempo marking.” Yes–I loved that movement. One of the best slow movements in this project so far. The rest was great, as always, and while not a fantastic masterpiece or anything, was still a solid winner. Grade: A (8/30)

8. Symphony No. 46
This one requires a lot more attention, looking for smart little clues to its larger ideas. I liked it, but I could tell much more was going on here. Quite an engaging piece, though–equal parts manic and depressive, turning on its heels pretty often. Haydn plumbs and celebrates all emotion. Grade: A- (8/30)

7. Symphony No. 11
I feel bad that I haven’t given anything an A+ in a while, but maybe I’m listening to too many of these lately and they’re all blurring. At any rate, this is as pleasant as any, but nothing about it seemed memorable or remarkable to me. Maybe I should listen to each of these 20 times instead of two. Grade: B (8/31)

6. Symphony No. 28
The ClassicFM review is worth quoting in full here, as I entirely agree: “Aggressively good stuff all the way through. A trifle long at over 20 minutes, but there are probably just about enough ideas flying around to keep the interest. Interestingly, having such a buoyant and bouncy first movement makes the impact of the slow, second movement all the more pronounced.” I’m just very grateful to have found such a perfect soundtrack for my life as the works of Haydn. Grade: A (9/1)

5. Symphony No. 88
A great example of what I love about Haydn–such a range of emotion is plumbed, analyzed, and celebrated in these little symphonies, all with a grace and panache that elevates the whole even higher. It’s really hard to even assign grades for my reactions at this point–I’m clearly avoiding A-plusses, but even the A’s seem reckless at this point, and yet, what else could this beauty possibly be? Grade: A (9/1)

4. Symphony No. 26 (‘Lamentatione’)
This started out so promisingly. I really liked the first and second movements, but the third…not so much. I wanted it to be faster and stronger. As it is, it’s not brooding so much as plodding. The tone there is unserious, almost frivolous. The end is pretty weak…but the rest is pretty good! Grade: B- (9/1)

3. Symphony No. 6 (‘Le matin’)
One of the few that I already knew a bit, and a strong contender for favorite. My muted reaction to some early stuff aside, this one is phenomenally wonderful. The nickname is apt–I always think this is what morning really sounds like. Can’t hold back the grade on this one–it undeniably flawless in every way. Grade: A+ (9/2)

2. Symphony No. 44 (‘Trauer’)
I haven’t said this for a while, but the very best works are those where every part fires on all cylinders–the introductions are effective at quickly establishing a memorable tone, the slow movements are distinct in their dreaminess or their brooding or both, and the conclusions are genuinely stirring moments of triumph. With that in mind, 44 is a *super* masterpiece. This is one of those things that you hear and it just changes you; it stays with you like only a few things ever will. Grade: A+ (9/2)

1. Symphony No. 49 (‘La Passione’)
This project ends for now with an example of the deep, sweeping mini-epics that Haydn was so great at creating. This one soars high and delves deep. It’s not my favorite, but it is truly great. A fitting masterpiece to conclude this set of 40. Grade: A+ (9/2)

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