Finding Haydn: Starting on an impossible journey

I’m embarking on a listening project, exploring all of Haydn’s symphonies in search of a specific work I remember listening to years ago. The truth is, I’m not exactly sure what the work is or whether Haydn actually wrote it. All I have is a vague memory.

I heard it first on a cassette I played on my car stereo back in ’95. It was the Sharp stereo ‘system’ I’d ripped from my mum’s Volvo. On the rare occasions she listened to music when she was driving, she would listen to either Richard Clayderman, Barry Manilow or James Last. This seemed like a flagrant misuse of the equipment and missed opportunity. So, one late Sunday afternoon during a weekend trip to see my parents I swapped out the radio-cassette player in my car with the comparatively higher quality Sharp stereo in my mother’s car. She never batted an eyelid – proof the act was legitimate.

It was only at the point of installing the stereo in my car I discovered the tone control dial had broken off. Consequently, what little fine-tuning I could impose over the sound quality demanded a delicate left-hand thumb and first finger whilst driving. I was a fearless driver. Hindsight informs me I was perilous too.

An impossible task

The music I heard had the sound of a well-positioned vase or picture on a wall. Due care and attention had been given to proportion and context. What I heard sounded perfectly formed and seemed to fit it’s surroundings perfectly. It made me gasp. It set sights higher.

I was driving at speed from Aldeburgh to Snape Maltings Concert Hall when I heard it. It was June 1995. I’d been in the orchestral management job for around 6 weeks – the first task handed to me on my first day was to book 50 or so musicians for an Aldeburgh Festival concert that year. I had a ring binder with telephone numbers, a database, a rehearsal schedule, a conductor, and a concert programme. It seemed like an impossible task.

The orchestra were meeting for the first day of their rehearsals in around about 45 minutes. The bus from Eversholt Street was due to arrive shortly. I needed to be there ahead of it.

The personnel list for one of the Britten-Pears Orchestra concerts in June 1995. This was the list of names I sent to the programme book editor for the print deadline. There are some names on this list who were never booked. But at that stage, if I’d been ‘accurate’ the orchestra would have been incomplete. So some creativity needed to be deployed.


I remember being nervous too. I wanted to know who was on the bus now so I could find out who was missing. Because there were bound to be people missing. It seemed absolutely impossible to me that people would actually turn-up like they said they would. Booking them hadn’t been an easy process. Unfamiliar names alongside telephone numbers.

I had to ring and sell the idea to people (I’d been surprised that musicians didn’t just say ‘yes’ instantly). And because the booking process had felt a good deal more tortured than I ever imagined it would be, I made no assumptions that everyone would turn up at all. As I recall, the stakes felt so high that if anyone failed to show up, then the fall from grace would be vast and the impact fatal. I was on probation. I couldn’t be seen to fail.

Young and inexperienced

Let’s clarify a few things right off the bat. I don’t (now) think the world revolves around me anymore, nor do I think that everybody’s out to get me. I am a believer (now) that we create our own reality. I was also 22 years old. A 22 year old with little experience of booking an orchestra. Actually, I had no experience of booking an orchestra. A 22-year-old with no experience of booking an orchestra of musicians, who had booked one for a concert that members of the public had bought tickets to attend. Terrifying responsibility.

Part of the programme included Verklarte Nacht. I’d heard Verklarte Nacht once before and couldn’t decipher it. This wasn’t what I wanted orchestral management to be. I didn’t want to be booking musicians for a concert I wasn’t going to enjoy. I wanted to the orchestra to perform music I wanted to hear (kind of missing the point of a training orchestra and the Aldeburgh Festival, I know). Surely, if they were playing things I wanted to hear then there was a higher chance other people would want to hear it too and, by extension, musicians would commit to playing more readily? If they were playing music I wanted to hear, then I wouldn’t be quite so anxious driving to the first rehearsal about whether or not the musicians would actually turn up.

It’s probably worth clarifying a few things here too. I know all of that in the previous paragraph is tortured logic. But I was 22. My experience of classical music then was surprisingly limited even if I completed a degree and played in an orchestra. Obviously. I also adore Verklarte Nacht now. The unfamiliar has now become the indispensable. Now it’s a work I celebrate and advocate.

At the time, the music I was listening to in the car, the work I’m searching for now, soothed me. It was new to me, but it also used a comparatively familiar harmonic language. Unfamiliar as it was, it wasn’t far from my musical comfort zone.

The tape was a recording of the orchestra my predecessor in the role had booked for a previous concert. The orchestra sounded remarkable. The orchestra’s sound in this live recording was an aspiration and an impossibility. The idea something I was involved in would sound anything like what I was listening to was a pipe-dream.

The Challenge

I want to find that piece of music. I know I won’t find that specific recording. Or at least, I think I’m unlikely to. But I want to reconnect with it in the same way you might seek out an ex- or a former one-night-stand who you ended up being more into than you realised. I want to reconcile my memory of the music with a present-day real-life appreciation of it and see if both match-up.

But, without access to previous programme books from the Aldeburgh Festival, I’m going with my instinct. I know it wasn’t Beethoven or Brahms. It wasn’t late romantic.  It couldn’t have been. Britten-Pears didn’t have the resources then for that kind of scale orchestra (in actual fact, Britten-Pears didn’t especially have the resources when I was working there – unlike today).

So, it’s got to be Haydn. Or possibly Mozart. And I know it wasn’t a concerto – there was no solo instrument. And I know too there were a few movements in it. There might have been four.

I’m starting with Haydn’s symphony number one, and I’m going to listen to all 106. And if I go through all of them and haven’t found it I’ll start on the Mozart’s symphonies and go through them in numerical order too. If that doesn’t work then I’ll tap up Aldeburgh to get a root through their archives.

And I figure it might be quite interesting to document that process. Because, in addition to getting familiar with 106 symphonies I don’t actually know that well, you never know what you might also discover along the way.



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