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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 10

The final symphonies for the Esterházys: 62, 63, 70, 71, 73-75 (1778-81)

This post continues our journey through the symphonies of Joseph Haydn and we find ourselves in the late 1770s. Haydn was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to the Esterházy court in 1761 and took on the Kapellmeister's job in 1766. Our view of the composer's work for his music-loving employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, is rather skewed by the fact that Haydn's instrumental works - and especially the symphonies - are the part of his output best-known today. However it's important to point out at this stage that by the late 1770s, writing instrumental music of any sort of was not Haydn's principal preoccupation.

Nikolaus loved the theatre. Esterháza, his newly-constructed summer palace - where he ended up spending up to ten months each year - contained two theatres: a large one for operas and plays, and a smaller one for marionette operas. By 1776 Haydn was in effect running a full-time theatrical establishment for the prince. He had to oversee the musical aspects of all the productions, including the plays, and these were not just occasional events. In 1778 there were 184 play performances and 50 opera performances in just that one year; by 1786 there were as many as 125 opera evenings. The job of sourcing operas from Vienna and elsewhere, arranging them for the small company employed by the Prince, and occasionally composing new operas himself, was a massive job, especially at Esterháza, which was somewhat off the beaten track to say the least. Added to this is the fact that Nikolaus seems to have lost interest in purely instrumental music, and he'd even stopped commissioning new works for the baryton (his own instrument) by 1776. Ordinary concerts - where symphonies would have been required - became the exception rather than the rule.

Prince Nikolaus Esterházy

Between 1776 and 1781 Haydn only completed nine symphonies (I have to smile at that word: only.) Two of these (nos 53 and 61) we discussed in Part 9; in this instalment we'll discuss the other seven.

We start here with Haydn's symphony no 62 in D. This dates from late 1780, but the first movement was recycled. It had started life as a theatre overture in 1777 although we don't know now what work it was written for. The remainder of the symphony, written in 1780, completes what is a most unusual work for Haydn: all four movements are in the same key. The second movement is marked Allegretto (meaning that it's not terribly slow) and it has a delicate, dreamlike mood about it which is most unusual for Haydn. It could easily have been part of an opera or ballet, with its muted violins and focus on high pitches. [listen]

In the last couple of posts in this series we've noticed how Haydn developed a lighter style in his symphonies in the mid-to-late 1770s after the angst and radical experiments of the Sturm und Drang symphonies written at the start of the decade. The next symphony we'll look at, no 63 in C, is singled out by the Haydn scholar James Webster as being a perfect example of this new form of symphony, written for "serious entertainment".

Even at this stage of Haydn's career the traditional numbering of the symphonies doesn't always match their chronology, and no 63 was probably written before no 62, in late 1779. Again, the first movement is even older, being a recycled version of Haydn's "moon opera", Il mondo della luna (The World on the Moon), written two years before.

A scene from a modern production of Haydn's Il mondo della luna (Opera della Luna, UK)

No 63 was also written in great haste if the sources are anything to go by, and given its date this is not surprising. There was a disastrous fire at Esterháza Castle on 18 November 1779. The Prince's opera house was destroyed, as were many instruments and an enormous part of the court's musical archives of scores and parts. It's incredible to realise that only three days after the fire, opera performances resumed - in the smaller marionette theatre - but Haydn had to work fast to get new materials ready for this and other ventures. It seems symphony no 63 was assembled in great haste after the fire (along with no 75, discussed later in this post).

No 63 has a nickname, La Roxelane. This refers to a tune of that name which is the basis of the symphony's second movement, which in turn was used in some of Haydn's incidental music (for a play, Soliman der zweite by Charles Simon Favart, also from 1777, in which Roxelana was a character). The symphony's finale, though, is extraordinary. It keeps switching back and forth between light, "easy listening" passages on the one hand, and more bizarre, challenging passages on the other. It's one of the master's most arresting finales. [listen]

Jourdy: Charles Simon Favart

The next two symphonies in this article - nos 70 and 71 - are probably the earliest of the group under discussion, dating from either late 1778 or early 1779. No symphonies by Haydn are known to have been written in 1777 or the first half of 1778, such were the demands of his theatrical activities, so no 70 may have been his first symphony for almost two years. It was performed after the fire in late 1779, at the ceremony marking the laying of the foundation stone for the rebuilt theatre, but the evidence suggests that the work had already been in existence for a year or so.

Like the finale to no 63, no 70 plays a great deal with contrasting fun and seriousness. The first and third movements are bright, brilliant and immediate; the second and fourth movements are serious and academic. Haydn underscores this by playing with major and minor tonality throughout the piece.

The dazzling first movement reminds us of Mozart at his most gripping, whereas the second movement is a subdued and learned exercise in counterpoint in the minor key. The minuet third movement returns to the mood of the first, but the short finale straddles both worlds. It's fast, very contrapuntal and complicated in its textures, and it's in the stern minor key. Well, it's in the minor key until right near the end when Haydn makes it end in the major. Yet again, the composer manages to surprise us. [listen]

Symphony no 71 in B flat probably dates from the same time as no 70 and we encounter here a feature well-known in Haydn's later symphonies but which is rarely seen in the earlier ones: the first movement has a slow introduction. The slow movement is a theme and variations, built, unusually, on five bar phrases. Phrases with odd lengths continue in the third movement, where the trio has melodies in seven bar groupings, and the finale also uses unusual phrase lengths. But it's perhaps harmony which is most brought to our attention in the last movement, where the development launches us into remote keys after a stable and conventional exposition. [listen]


Symphony no 73 in D dates from 1781 and is the latest symphony under discussion in this article. Haydn hits on a style and a mood in this work which reminds of his later, more familiar symphonies. The first movement again has a slow introduction - and a very substantial one at that - and a main fast section which develops thematically and dramatically in a way which is truly magnificent. It definitely seems to be a major signpost of things to come.

The remainder of symphony no 73 is no less polished. The slow movement is Haydn's arrangement of one of his own songs, and the finale yet again returns to the theatre. The symphony ends with an adaptation of Haydn's overture to his opera La fedeltá premiata, premiered in the same year as the symphony was written. The opera includes the goddess Diana as one if its characters. Her role as goddess of the hunt led Haydn to make the overture - and therefore the finale of the symphony - a rollicking piece of hunting music. This has given symphony no 71 its nickname of La Chasse (The Hunt). [listen]

Cametti: Diana as Huntress (1720). (Pedestal by Latour, 1754).

Symphony no 74 in E flat was probably written not long before no 71, in late 1780. It returns to the more popular, less challenging style of symphonies which Haydn could by now write with ease, but this doesn't make it lightweight in terms of interest. The slow movement is described by James Webster as exhibiting the "sprightly profundity" which is evident in so many of Haydn's slow movements. It's in a rondo structure with a fascinating coda, and it keeps us in the palm of its hand from beginning to end. The rest of the symphony is no less charming. [listen]

Symphony no 75 in D dates, like no 63, from immediately after the fire of 1779. It too has a slow introduction which points clearly to the powerful introductions in the London symphonies of the 1790s, and the slow movement again looks forward to the later, mature Haydn. The third movement (a minuet and trio) is one of those in which Haydn straddles the elegance of the court and the simple earnestness of the country. The minuet opens with a downbeat turn in the melody which is fascinating and this is matched by accented grace notes on upbeats in the trio.

No 75's finale is in a rondo structure, again a form favoured and perfected by Haydn in his later symphonies. The quiet opening and later loud outbursts are absolutely typical, and the smiling geniality of the whole movement is an good example of Haydn's lighter approach overall around 1780. [listen]

These symphonies also mark another important end. Given Prince Nikolaus' loss of interest in instrumental music, the symphonies discussed in this post are the last such works Haydn wrote for his employer. The new contract Haydn signed in 1779 allowed the composer - for the first time - to write music for use outside the court, and the symphonies from no 76 onwards were all written for performance and/or publication elsewhere. It was indeed the end of an era for Haydn, and the start of a whole new one.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2011.

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