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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 12

Symphonies for Paris: 82-87 (1785-86)

Haydn had been working for the noble Esterházy family since the early 1760s, and directed the musical establishment as Kapellmeister from 1766. Until 1779 he was not permitted to write for anyone other than the Esterházy court without his employer's permission. However from the 1760s onwards Haydn's music was well-known across Europe. His chamber music, sonatas and symphonies were published in major centres and in large quantities. The only problem was, he made no money at all from these publications.

Haydn's fame outside the narrow confines of his employment rested on the dissemination of unauthorised, pirated editions. Illegal copies were made and sent to publishers who didn't hesitate to put them into print and reap the rewards. Even works by other composers were issued with Haydn's name on them, such was the fame of the great man's name.

Haydn clearly knew this was going on but was, until 1779, unable to do anything about it. Under the terms of his new 1779 contract, though, the Esterházy establishment finally gave Haydn permission to compose for whoever he wanted, so long as he maintained certain duties at the court. At last he could start to capitalise on the fame he'd accrued over nearly two decades.

In our last instalment on the Haydn symphonies we looked at symphonies nos 76 to 81, the first "freelance" symphonies he wrote under the terms of his new Esterházy contract. These date from 1782 and 83. A year or two later Haydn received a commission which led to the creation of his next six symphonies. These brilliant symphonies, nos 82-87, are the subject of this post, the twelfth in our series looking at all Haydn's known symphonies.

The commission for six new symphonies came to Haydn from Paris. It was the brainchild of Claude-François-Marie Rigoley, the Count of Ogny. Ogny was one of the backers and organisers of a concert-giving organisation called Le Concert de la Loge Olympique, founded by a group of liberal Freemasons.

Portrait of the Comte d'Ogny in uniform of the commander of the National Guard (c. 1790)
Noël (attr.): View of Place Louis XV (now Place de la Concorde) from the Left Bank (c. 1780)

Ogny left the negotiations with Haydn to his principal violinist, Joseph-Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (a notable composer in his own right), and Haydn was offered a staggering fee for these works. He was offered 25 louis d'or for each symphony, plus an extra 5 louis d'or for the French publication rights. 25 louis d'or was five times what the organisation usually offered for a new symphony, but to give an idea of what they thought of Haydn, a 1994 article on these symphonies suggested that 25 louis d'or was the equivalent of approximately US$60,000. That's for each symphony.

Haydn accepted the commission.

The music he produced showed that he was far from churning out any old thing for the fee. The music of the six “Paris” symphonies, as they are generally known today, shows the 52 year old Haydn continuing to develop and refine his craft. Until now, he'd been able to write well in two different styles: the easy, urbane style which was meant for the popular market, and the intense, intellectual style which appealed to connoisseurs. In the Paris symphonies though, as in the opus 54, 55 and 64 quartets, he showed himself now able to write in both styles simultaneously.

Joseph-Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1789)

The Paris symphonies are works which are immediately appealing; the first movement of symphony no 82 is a perfect example. Under the surface of these seemingly populist works there is much to appeal to the musically-educated: interesting forms and structures, intriguing twists of harmony, unusual phrase lengths, subtle musical jokes and the like.

After its dazzling, driving first movement, symphony no 82 continues with a slow movement which is in a simple structure but which plays with major and minor tonalities. The melody is simple and appealing but the harmony always changes.

The slow movements of all six Paris symphonies, in fact, comprise one of the set's major attractions. Every slow movement is different, and it seems Haydn was going out of his way to experiment with his slow movements as much as he always had.

After a very French-sounding minuet, the finale of no 82 strikes a very down-to-earth pose with a melody played out over a drone bass. From its earliest performances in Paris, this tune reminded its listeners of the sort of music played for dancing bears. Thus the symphony's nickname, The Bear (L’Ours in French), came about. [listen]

The six Paris symphonies were probably written in an order different to that in which they're now numbered. The first set of three, dating from 1785, were most likely nos 83, 87 and 85, whereas those of the following year were probably nos 82, 84 and 86. Indeed, the first edition published them in this order, but when they were issued in Vienna by Artaria, the order was changed to the order in which they're now known, so I'll work through them in the traditional numbering.

Like no 82, no 83 in G minor was also given a nickname by the French. The repeated oboe note over the second subject of the first movement suggested the clucking of a hen to some, so no 83 acquired the nickname of The Hen (La Poule).

The "Hen's" slow movement is extraordinary. It creates a sense of melodic richness which is reminiscent of Mozart, but there are sudden, violent outbursts of loud dynamics which interrupt proceedings in a way which is almost shocking. Such shocks were very much to the taste of the Parisian audiences; Mozart played up the same things in his "Paris" symphony in 1778.

The remainder of the Hen symphony is full of beauty. The minuet seems to be straight out of the countryside, while the finale is a virtuoso workout for the whole orchestra. [listen]

Martini: Exposition au Salon de Louvre (1787)

Symphony no 84 in E flat doesn't have a nickname, which has meant that it's less well known than those which do. (I’ve read of various attempts to give it a nickname, such as In nomine domine, or the Watch symphony, but none is widely used.) Don't let the lack of a nickname put you off; no 84 is glorious. It's one of three of these six symphonies which opens with a slow introduction, something which takes on more and more importance in the later Haydn symphonies.

After a slow movement which is full of delicacy, subtlety and surprises, no 84 has a minuet which is about as Austrian as you can get. In the trio the melody in the bassoon and violins is given quirky phrasings, which, when combined with the unexpected offbeat accents, show that Haydn never treated the writing of minuets as routine.

No 84's finale is one of Haydn's famous 2/4 Vivace movements, but again, the writing is never routine. Soft passages with completely unexpected turns of harmony, and driving energy and good humour, ensure our interest is maintained to the very end. [listen]

The orchestra at the Concert de la Loge Olympique, who gave the first performances of Haydn's Paris symphonies starting in 1787, was very large by the standards of the day. It comprised professionals and skilled amateurs and is known to have contained 40 violins and 10 double basses. These proportions indicate there were probably about 70 players all up. Such an ensemble was enormous compared to the small orchestra of around 20 musicians which Haydn had at his disposal at Esterháza.

The Loge's orchestra wore sky-blue coats and dressed with swords, and their audiences often included the French Queen, Marie Antoinette. In 1787 the Queen was in the midst of the turmoil which would lead to the start of the French Revolution only two years later, but her taste in music is noted in the special affection she is said to have held for Haydn's symphony no 85 in B flat. It's for this reason that no 85 has acquired the nickname of La Reine de France (The Queen of France), although this is usually shortened to just La Reine (The Queen).

Marie Antoinette (1775)

The stately opening of no 85's slow introduction is seen by most commentators as a nod to French taste, while the main fast section of the first movement is full of contrasts: light versus dark, elegant one moment, driving, almost manic the next. There's even a passage which seems to quote the opening of Haydn's "Farewell" symphony (written fifteen years before); an ironic twist considering Marie Antoinette had only six years left to live.

The reminder of no 85 is no less remarkable, but time doesn't allow us to go into it further. The second movement is a set of variations on a French song, while the trio of the third movement contains a passage which makes us hold our breath wondering where it will go. The sonata-rondo finale in 2/4, but marked Presto this time, one of Haydn's trademark finales full of wit and good humour. [listen]

Symphony no 86 in D is a big-sounding work, not least because it uses trumpets and timpani in addition to the horns. The basic instrumentation for the Paris symphonies is 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings, and this is the full complement required for nos 83, 84, 85 and 87. In no 82 Haydn uses timpani but no trumpets, although in that symphony he writes for high horns in C, and notes in the score that if the parts are too high for the Parisian horn players that they can be replaced by trumpets. The usual practice in no 82 today is to divide the parts between horns and trumpets, giving the higher music to the trumpets and the lower music to the horns.

No 86, though, is the only one in the set which specifically calls for both horns and trumpets, and there are timpani as well. The dazzling first movement is followed by a very unusual slow movement which Haydn titles Capriccio (literally, a caprice). The Haydn scholar HC Robbins Landon describes this movement as "almost like an improvisation that the composer has written down. It is indeed an unusual movement, whose emotional content defies normal description; it is neither happy nor sad, but inhabits a magical world of its own".

The minuet movement which follows is on a much larger scale than was usual for such movements, being structured in a miniature sonata form. The central trio section, on the other hand, is an early Viennese waltz.

The finale of No 86 is a perfect example of Haydn's ability to combine music that was catchy and easily accessible on the one hand, with music that is intricately constructed and full of amazing musical detail on the other. In all, Symphony no 86 is a witty and captivating masterpiece. [listen]

Meunier: Interior of the Comédie-Française, as designed in 1790

The last-numbered of Haydn's six Paris symphonies is no 87 in A. A major is regarded by musicians as a "bright" key, something Haydn seems to agree with in the witty, engaging music he writes in this symphony's opening movement.

The slow movement is a beautiful, timeless piece, with pride of place given to the winds as an ensemble of soloists. The minuet, on the other hand, has a rough edge to it, being more down to earth and engaging in simpler pleasures.

The finale of no 87 starts with a melody which sounds deceptively simple, but what Haydn does to it in the central development section is fascinating, inventive and yet never over-clever, a perfect description of all six Paris symphonies. [listen]

Desrais: The first manned hot-air balloon, designed by the Montgolfier brothers, takes tethered off at the garden of the Reveillon workshop, Paris, on October 19, 1783

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2012.

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