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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 11

The first freelance symphonies: 76-81 (1782-83)

It might sound crazy to suggest this, but Haydn’s Symphony no 76 marks a turning point in the history of European music. I’ll explain…

In 1779 Haydn was getting close to marking 20 years in the service of the noble Esterházy family. He had been in charge of the Prince's musical establishment for most of that time and could look back on staggering achievements in chamber music, solo instrumental music, orchestral music, sacred music and opera. Almost everything Haydn had written had been written for his employer, but in 1779 this all changed.

Despite spending most of the year - every year - at court, Haydn's reputation was international. His fame stretched from one end of Europe to the other, but ironically, he had little to show for that fame. What little of his music had been published had usually appeared in pirated editions made from smuggled or stolen instrumental parts; the composer made no money from such publications. Now he wanted a piece of the action, and this neatly coincided with the changes which had been going on for some years within the Esterházy establishment where he worked.

In the late 1770s Haydn had been virtually single-handedly running a music theatre operation for the Esterházy family. Operas and plays with music were his preoccupation, and concert music had become a minor part of Haydn's workload. Between 1776 and 1781 Haydn wrote only nine new symphonies because the Prince's interests were focused much more on the theatre. This change of emphasis is reflected in the new contract Haydn signed with the Prince on New Year's Day, 1779.

In this, Haydn was allowed for the first time to compose works for performance outside the court without first seeking the Prince's permission, as had hitherto been the case. He was to stay in residence as the Esterházy Kapellmeister and manage the music theatre operations of the court - on his full salary - but his other musical involvements would no longer be restricted.

This is the eleventh part in my series on the Haydn symphonies, and in the last instalment we ended with symphony No 75, the last symphony he wrote for the Esterházys. From here on, Haydn's symphonies (and there are still 29 to go!) were written for others, and his symphonic writing changes to meet the marketplace which had been awaiting him for years.

Haydn's Symphony no 76 in E flat was the first symphony written under the terms of his new contract. He'd already written piano sonatas and string quartets for outside publication since signing the new contract; now with Symphony no 76, written in 1782, he sets his sights on England.

Haydn, of course, famously visited England twice in the 1790s, and the last twelve symphonies are directly connected with those journeys. But a decade earlier, in the early 1780s, there were serious attempts to get him to cross the channel. From late 1781 the London newspapers excitedly reported on efforts to bring Haydn to England, and some reports even claimed he was on his way. In the press he was referred to in glowing terms (such as "the Shakespeare of music") and the gossip about his imminent arrival was immense and intense.

Bowles: Panoramic View of London (1751)

Except that Haydn wasn't on his way at all. There seem to have been serious invitations offered to Haydn in the early 1780s to visit, but no intention on his part to act upon them at the time. However the first three symphonies written under the terms of his new contract, numbers 76 to 78, were almost certainly intended for such a visit if it ever took place. Writing works in groups of three of six was not only common in those days when preparing a body of work for such a tour, but such works were usually published in opus groupings of three or six. There can be no doubt that, England or no England, Haydn intended to publish this group of three symphonies to put his music on the open market now that his employer had allowed him to.

All these symphonies are in the usual four movement structure that Haydn himself had helped to establish, with the slow movement second and the minuet third. In offering the three symphonies to a French publisher, Haydn himself described them as "beautiful, elegant and by no means over-lengthy...they are all very easy, and without too much concertante". By "concertante" Haydn means solo writing, so the works were intended for easy playing and without a lot of exposed solo episodes for individual players. In other words, he was writing for the marketplace.

The rondo finale of no 76, along with every movement of this set of three symphonies, shows that in "writing for the marketplace" Haydn didn't write rubbish. Easy-to-digest these works might be, but they are still full of his trademark wit, elegance and invention. [listen]

Haydn knew he had a marketable commodity in these works; symphonies 76-78 were brought out by not one but three publishers: Torricella in Vienna, Boyer in France, and Forster in London. The London publications went part of the way to appeasing the public there for his non-appearance in person, but clearly such forays into the marketplace kept the desire alive for Haydn to visit the English capital at some time in the future.

Symphony no 77 in B flat is a masterpiece. The first movement is one of Haydn's clearest uses of what we now call classic sonata form, with a real second subject, and the slow movement is utterly elegant from start to finish. But the real historical interest lies in the third and fourth movements. The minuet is so boisterous and bucolic that it suggests the symphonic scherzo of future decades. And the finale is one of the first examples of what later became known as sonata-rondo form, literally a combination of sonata form with rondo form. It more or less follows an ABACA rondo structure but the C section is really a development of earlier material, as you'd expect in sonata form, and not a new theme. [listen]

The final symphony in this set of three is no 78 in C minor, one of those relatively rare Haydn symphonies in a minor key. It had been eight years since Haydn had written a minor-key symphony (the disturbingly turbulent no 52, also in C minor) and the differences are

instructive. No 52 is one of the so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies, and it's one of the most angry, bizarre and challenging of all Haydn's symphonies. Here in no 78, the use of the minor key is far more congenial, even if it does appear dark by virtue of the minor mode. This is the first movement. [listen]

You'll hear even there that the move to the relative major key softens the impact of the minor key in which the movement started, and the second movement is in that key (E flat major). [listen]

The tonic major (C major) is the key of the minuet [listen], but the minor home key returns for the finale. Even then Haydn doesn't stay in C minor; he ends the symphony in C major, something which creates a totally different impression to that achieved in No 52. Here, a happy ending - even with witty silences designed to raise a smile - seems to be required for the punters Haydn hopes will buy and play his music. [listen]

The Weigh House Chapel, London (1780)

Haydn's next three symphonies, Nos 79-81, composed in 1783, were also written in a group of three designed for publication, and many scholars believe it's entirely possible that these too were written for the possible English visit which didn't take place in the early 1780s.

One commentator has called symphony no 79 in F the "least superficially interesting" of this set of three, pointing out that its subtleties would probably have appealed more to connoisseurs than to the general public or amateur music-makers. Another commentator has pointed out the chamber music-like qualities of this symphony. Large tracts of the music

are given to the strings alone - like a large string quartet - and the writing is far more conversational and soloistic, more akin to quartet than orchestral writing. The winds, when they play, have little which is not already covered by the strings, and this adds to the whole impression of delicate domesticity which hangs over this second group of three symphonies.

The second movement of no 79 is an excellent example of this. It's also structurally intriguing, starting out as one of Haydn's variation slow movements. The surprise comes at the end with a faster section in a different meter which turns out to be yet another variation of the original melody.

1st movement [listen]

2nd movement [listen]

3rd movement [listen]

4th movement [listen]

Symphony no 80 is again in a minor key - D minor this time - and like no 78, Haydn relents and ends the work in the major. It starts with some fierce, minor key angst, though, reminiscent of the ground-breaking symphonies of the previous decade. Like No 78, the exposition of the first movement ends in the relative major, but Haydn does so with a little melody which seems to be in the wrong piece.

No 80's finale, though, starts with one of Haydn's most eloquent aural deceptions. Without looking at the score, you could be forgiven for thinking that the melody and accompaniment are very simple, on the beat, and four-square. In fact, Haydn writes the whole thing a quaver

"out", tied across the bar, with the weak beats accented and the strong beats underplayed. The result is that the ear has to skip a beat to get on the right track when the loud music starts, which actually is on the beat. Haydn clearly didn't think that writing for the marketplace meant not being witty, innovative or fascinating. He was just being himself.

1st movement [listen]

2nd movement [listen]

3rd movement [listen]

4th movement [listen]

The third symphony in this second group of three is no 81 in G. Here again, Haydn's public voice is no different to his Esterházy voice; for all the awareness he had of writing - finally - for the wider public, he clearly had no intention of dumbing down his style or curbing his spirit of invention. No 80 begins with a remarkable first movement which creates tension and interest right from the first chord. We immediately wonder where the music is going, but it's never aimless, and when we find out where it actually is going, it's never disappointing. [listen]

After an elegant slow movement [listen] and a boisterous minuet which again hails from the countryside [listen], the finale of No 81 comes as a bit of a surprise. Rather than the driving finales of the other symphonies discussed here, no 81 ends with an elegant, understated movement which seems to just enjoy being sunny and relaxed rather than frenetic. This movement sums up everything which is lovely about these six symphonies, in which Haydn declared his work to the world on his terms. [listen]

Collet: Covent Garden Piazza and Market, London (1770s)

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

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