Haydn’s 300th Birthday Is an Event Eight Years in the Making

After speaking with more than 24 orchestras, conductors, players, and musicologists, we can report that Haydn’s long-term ROI for 2032 looks to be very high

By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

The release of three new recordings of Joseph Haydn’s symphonies suggests that festivities may already be underway for the composer’s 300th birthday in 2032. The final volumes in the set by the historically informed performance (HIP) modern-instrument ensemble Heidelberger Sinfoniker, conducted by Thomas Frey and Johannes Klumpp on Hänssler, will be released at the end of the year. The cycle on Alpha, shared by the HIP period-instrument group Il Giardino Armonico and the HIP hybrid Basel Chamber Orchestra conducted by Giovanni Antonini, has reached Volume 15. These recordings are a part of the greater Haydn2032 project, organized and funded by the Joseph Haydn Foundation in Basel, that will produce performances and recordings of all 107 symphonies, photo series, and essays all leading up to Haydn’s 300th birthday. There’s a countdown meter on their site that shows, as of writing, there are only 3,207 days to go until Joseph turns 300.

Adding to the riches, Sony has released Derek Solomons’ brilliant but incomplete period-instrument set from the 1980s with L’Estro Armonico—49 symphonies (nothing later than number 67) all recorded in St. Barnabas, London. The orchestra included violinists Elizabeth Wallfisch and Monica Huggett and other handpicked stars whose authority and love of the music were clear in every bar. Recording engineers Tony Faulkner and Trygg Tryggvasson were superstars themselves and produced astonishingly natural sound.

I contacted more than two dozen orchestras, conductors, players, and musicologists to see how this was being reflected on the ground. I can report to investors with a cultural portfolio that Haydn’s long-term ROI for 2032 looks to be very high. In a sense, Haydn is Mozart before Amadeus.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s general manager Ricky Dean McWain says that LACO music director Jaime Martín will conduct six Haydn symphonies over the next two seasons. “We want to paint a vivid picture of where the art form has been and where it is going. It is the lifeblood of ensembles like LACO, and we also want to carry that legacy forward.”

In April, Martín conducted Haydn’s Creation with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in London to celebrate the 100th birthday of Neville Marriner, who served as LACO’s first music director. “Haydn was also present in my opening concert as chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra,” Martín says. “I look forward to exploring more Haydn with LACO in the future.”

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director and principal violin, Kyu-Young Kim, tells me that Haydn “is one of our most programmed composers for his innovation and sense of discovery. We have four of them on the docket for 2024: 22, 60, 94, and 104, which we used for a What Makes It Great program with Rob Kapilow. Haydn’s symphonies are ideal for our unconducted model and the kind of collaborative rehearsal process that our players love to engage in. I hope that we will have played all of them by 2032. We’re not that far off from that milestone.”


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Kim says that Haydn’s time in Esterhàzy was actually the inspiration for SPCO’s Sandbox Residencies. “We want our Sandbox composers to feel like they can experiment with SPCO players the way that Haydn experimented with his musicians at Esterhàzy. Viet Cuong and Clarice Assad have written pieces for us that have really connected with the players and with the audience. I think the playfulness of both pieces honored Haydn’s legacy.”

Deep in the heart of Texas, the Fort Worth Symphony will welcome a Haydn champion when Jane Glover takes over as principal guest conductor next season. “I can’t say I’ve done all his symphonies, but I’ve done quite a lot, and wherever you stick the pin on the list, it’s gold dust,” she says. “And he never repeats himself—that’s what’s so glorious about Haydn. He breaks rules, he tells jokes, he crashes through boundaries. You can’t just think, ‘Oh, I know how that goes,” and just fax it in. He’s always delighting you and challenging you and teasing you, and it’s just a great, great joy.”

The Cleveland Orchestra has performed Haydn’s music at concerts about 75 times since 2002, with the symphonies comprising around 40—on average, at least one symphony a year. In Amsterdam, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra reported that they have played works by Haydn 1,365 times since the orchestra’s founding in 1888.

The London Symphony Orchestra has Haydn on its mind for 2024–25, as associate artist Barbara Hannigan will continue exploring Haydn on her visits. “What’s not to love?” she asks me. “His jokes still play for laughs after 200 years, and he has a depth of emotion to move the soul and spirit. Haydn’s symphonies,” she says, “create heart-to-heart connections.” Since the beginning of 2023, Hannigan has conducted major Haydn symphonies in Rome, London, Gothenburg, Cleveland, Munich, Paris, Copenhagen, Reykjavik, Istanbul, and Lausanne.

The Lausanne Chamber Orchestra traces its Haydn legacy back to the recordings of the complete Haydn operas for Decca conducted by Antal Doráti in the late 1970s, and its repertoire continues to include Haydn’s symphonies and concertos, while future plans include the two oratorios. Executive director Antony Ernst points out that playing Haydn keeps the orchestra in very good shape by making demands on their ensemble, intonation, and sense of style. And what they take from Haydn, they can apply to Mozart and Beethoven and a lot of their other repertoire. “Every time I hear something that’s new to me from Haydn, it’s an absolute discovery,” he says. “He transforms what in someone else’s hands would be simple and makes it absolutely, wonderfully imaginative, with a sunny aspect that makes it an absolute joy.”


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Haydn has played “a huge part” in the legacy of the prominent Dutch period-instrument ensemble Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, famed for its cutting-edge recordings of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven and led by its founder, Frans Brüggen, who says, “We will be playing his symphonies in 2032, and keeping them alive for audiences today.” The orchestra is also hoping to perform and record a selection of Haydn’s operas in the years leading up to the birthday.

As for the differences in approach between modern- and period-instrument groups, Max Mandel, principal viola in both the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, says, “It’s obviously much easier and natural on period instruments. Timbre, balance, articulation—these essential aspects don’t need to be dealt with or adjusted. They mostly just happen. In a modern orchestra, you have to work so hard to reveal parts of the music that are obscured by the technological advancements.”

The recorded cycles from Hänssler and Alpha reflect profound commitments to Haydn’s invention and development of the symphony as a self-referential musical narrative intended to engage listeners—who, in his case, were demanding and highly knowledgeable, especially about Haydn symphonies—and his employers. Both recordings represent state-of-the-art approaches focused on capturing the music with HIP style derived from practical scholarship or perceived intention, or both, and recorded in audiophile sound.

“Haydn was amazing,” the Heidelberger Sinfoniker’s Johannes Klumpp says. “He was the revolution. He always wants to surprise us. He wrote 107 symphonies, which sounds like a lot, but he had 40 years for them, between 1757 and 1797. So it’s not that he wrote one after the other. Every symphony is unique.”


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With the final 11 symphonies in the Heidelberger cycle in the editing stages, Klumpp and the Sinfoniker will record the first of a five-CD series called Haydn’s World this summer, including overtures and a Notturno by Haydn, Adalbert Gyrowetz’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and cello, and an overture by Giovanni Paisiello.

When I ask Haydn2032’s Giovanni Antonini what he had learned in the ten years since the release of Volume One in that cycle, he says that one aspect he improved was “to focus better on the character of each single piece, so important in music that is so full of different colors and moods, so subtle and refined.” Asked if he still dreams of performing the London symphonies with a huge orchestra and lots of strings and doubled winds, he says, “Yes, I would like to use the original balances between the orchestral parts that often were quite different from today. For example, we know that in 18th-century orchestras, they often had more double basses than celli, which produced a different sound and function of the bass lines.”

The next release in the Haydn2032 set will be symphonies 76–78, which Haydn composed in 1782 for a trip to England that fell through. Appropriately enough, if you want to hear a lot of Haydn symphonies in a short time, your best bet will be the 30th English Haydn Festival June 12–15 in the beautiful Shropshire market town of Bridgnorth. The Festival Orchestra on period instruments, conducted by Steven Devine, will perform numbers 10, 76, 84, 94, 99, and 102.

And in case anyone doesn’t think Haydn could be the subject of a major motion picture like Amadeus, check out Percy Adlon’s television film, Herschel and the Music of the Stars. It was based on a meeting between Haydn with the great German astronomer in 1792, during which he had a fictional affair with Herschel’s sister and was inspired by the discovery of Uranus to write The Creation. Imagine what Haydn could inspire in the creative minds at Masterpiece Theatre.