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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 13

More symphonies for Paris: 88-92 (1787-89)

This is the thirteenth post in our fifteen-part series looking at all of Haydn's known symphonies. In Part 12 we looked at an astonishing set of six symphonies which Haydn composed in the mid-1780s. Now known as numbers 82-87, these symphonies were commissioned by a concert-giving organisation in Paris known as Le Concert de la Loge Olympique. Under the direction of the Count of Ogny, and through the negotiations handled by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Haydn scored a spectacular professional success with these works. He scored a staggering financial success as well.

Portrait of the Comte d'Ogny in uniform of the commander of the National Guard (c. 1790)

The six “Paris” symphonies, as they’re now known, were performed in Paris in 1787 but Haydn himself never visited the French capital. The success of the symphonies, though, was absolute. Even Marie Antoinette claimed one of them - no 85, now known as La Reine (The Queen) - as a favourite.

The following five symphonies - nos 88 to 92 - all have a connection with Paris as well, and these five later works separate the six Paris symphonies from the twelve now known as the “London” symphonies. This group of five contains two symphonies which have remained in the regular repertoire more or less since Haydn's day - nos 88 and 92 - but the other three are no less masterful and no less deserving of our attention.

Nos 88 and 89 were written by Haydn in 1787; he gave them to the violinist Johann Tost to take to Paris to sell to a French publisher. Haydn was at this point in his life at the height of his international wheeling and dealing, selling his music to various publishers, and sometimes indulging in unscrupulous practices in order to maximise his profits. Tost had been a long-time colleague; he was for many years the principal second violin in Haydn's Esterházy orchestra. Now he undertook projects as Haydn's agent across Europe.

Symphony no 88 in G is among Haydn's better-known symphonies today; this despite the fact that it has no nickname. (It’s sometimes called the Letter V symphony, referring to an old system of cataloguing the Haydn symphonies which predates the traditional Mandyczewski numbering now commonly used.) It shows that Haydn was constantly experimenting and trying out new ideas in the symphonies, at a time when, given his international fame, he might have been tempted to rest on his laurels.

The first movement opens with a slow introduction, and the use of a slow introduction (usually ending on the dominant to heighten anticipation) now becomes the norm in Haydn's symphonic writing. Far from being perfunctory curtain-raising statements, the slow introductions are, in the late symphonies, absolutely essential to the movement, and the symphony, as a whole. Try starting any of the late symphonies without their slow introductions, and this will become obvious.

The main fast section of no 88's first movement is one of Haydn's happiest and most engaging. Yet there is a twist, something not obvious without actually seeing the orchestra. There is an orchestra of flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings on the stage, but the trumpets and timpani - uniquely for a Haydn symphony which calls for them - don't play in the first movement at all. Haydn's original audiences would have been seriously puzzled by this.

Having sat through the first movement in silence, the trumpets and timpani form Haydn's great innovation in no 88: they play in the slow movement. This went against all 18th century symphonic practice and was actually the first time Haydn used trumpets and timpani in a symphonic slow movement. (Mozart had done something similar in his "Linz" symphony, written four years before, and it's possible Haydn heard that work when Mozart performed it in Vienna in 1784.) The movement itself consists of little more than embellishments on a beautiful melody, but Haydn's exquisite orchestration and decoration of the theme is engaging from start to finish.

There is a story that Johannes Brahms, on hearing this movement, said, "I want my ninth symphony to sound like that". The trumpets and timpani only play in the loud chords which punctuate the music from time to time, but the whole thing is seamlessly and tastefully constructed.

Symphony no 88 continues with a boisterous, countrified minuet that Haydn wrote so easily and yet always managed to make interesting. The central trio section, though, is out of left field. Its exotic-sounding tune is based on a drone which shifts in parallel fifths, one of the big no-nos in music theory. There are also clearly specified accents and volume changes in unusual places. As usual, Haydn could make people sit up and take notice any time he wanted.

And no 88 ends with a stunningly effective finale, again something Haydn now could do with apparent ease and complete mastery. Little wonder that this symphony has always been popular, and continues to be so. I’ve loved it since childhood and had the privilege of conducting it in a Master Series concert with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in a program put together for my fiftieth birthday in 2008. [listen]

Hardy: Joseph Haydn (1791)

Sadly, the same thing - that it has always been popular - cannot be said for its companion piece. No 89 in F has had a bad run and one reads such differing opinions of it. Writing in Grove, James Webster says that the quality of no 89 "falls off somewhat", whereas the notes for a recording I know refer to its "incomprehensible neglect", saying it is "no less magnificent than its twin".

No 89 dispenses with the trumpets and timpani, calling for the five winds, two horns and strings otherwise used in no 88. Its first movement also has no slow introduction, and two of the movements are Haydn's rearrangements of movements of concertos written for the King of Naples shortly before. But these are not reasons to discredit the piece; no 89 is still wonderful.

Just as his own princely employer, Nikolaus Esterházy, played an obscure instrument - the baryton - the King of Naples played an even stranger contraption, the lira organizzata. In 1786 Haydn received a commission from the King to write some concertos for the instrument, which he duly fulfilled. In an article written for The Musical Quarterly in 1962, Harry R. Edwall describes the lira organizzata as "an instrument nearly as difficult to describe as it was to play".

Still, Edwall does a neat job in describing it. It was "a type of hurdy-gurdy to which was added a set of small organ pipes. Shaped somewhat like a guitar, the instrument was played by turning a crank with the right hand while the left manipulated a set of keys. The crank turned a wooden wheel which acted as a bow on two melody-bearing strings (chantrelles) tuned in unison and on a number of drone strings (bourdons). Sympathetic strings further reinforced the tone. The keys connected with rods which pressed up against the chantrelles to effect a chromatic scale. Double stops were not possible. The turning of the crank also worked a set of bellows inside the instrument, supplying wind for the pipes in a continuous, though uneven, stream..."

There is a short YouTube video here demonstrating the instrument.

A lira organizzata

With little prospect of his work on the music written for this rare instrument being heard anywhere else (there were five concertos in this batch), it's not surprising Haydn wanted to re-use some of his efforts. The second and fourth movements of Symphony no 89 are based on this music, although the odd instrument itself is not used and the music is extended to be more appropriate for its larger-scale symphonic context. The slow movement keeps up the concerto idea by giving the winds prominent solo sections apart from the strings.

The prominence of the winds in no 89 continues into the minuet, which - uniquely in not only Haydn but in pretty well all symphonic writing of the period - starts with the winds alone. [listen]

Sieber in Paris published symphonies nos 88 and 89 in 1789. The works themselves led the Count of Ogny (who had commissioned the six Paris symphonies a few years before) to request another three from Haydn for his orchestra at Le Concert de la Loge Olympique.

The result was symphonies nos 90-92, which are some of Haydn's finest and loveliest symphonic creations; they date from 1788 and 1789. By this stage of his career - he was in his mid-fifties - Haydn had so mastered the symphonic form that the energy and dramatic "journey" of each symphony seem both logical and surprising. There is never any doubt that what comes next at any given moment is exactly what should come next, yet there is never any suggestion of formulaic predictability, either. The man was extraordinary in his ability to combine the learned and the popular, the happy and the dramatic, the unpredictable and the satisfying.

No 90 in C is a perfect example. Here we have a slow introduction to the first movement, but the composer goes a step further in its effectiveness by having the main theme of the fast section to come pre-figured slowly in the introduction. Subtly yet effectively the whole is unified and made to feel totally satisfying.

Here also we have true sonata form in the later, formal sense, with a real second subject. The French critics had applauded Haydn's ability to make a sonata form movement out of a single theme in the earlier symphonies; now he shows that after the modulation to the dominant that he could just as well introduce a new one.

After a set of charming variations for the slow movement, and a boisterous minuet with a bucolic oboe solo in the trio for the third, no 90 ends with one of Haydn's most famous, and funniest, finales. The main tune bustles along and, as we've come to expect in Haydn's finales, sweeps us up in its relentless energy. But the false ending, and the four bars of silence in which the audience usually claps, never fail to get a laugh, even today. After the silence, the music continues - hushed and up a semitone - with the oboe unmistakably poking its tongue out as if to say, "Gotcha!"

Most conductors today observe Haydn’s repeat marking for the second half (I certainly do!) so that the joke is played on the audience twice. The inevitable suspicion of “crying wolf” is experienced when the symphony actually ends and the audience briefly hesitates before applauding. [listen]

The second of this group of three symphonies written for Paris is no 91 in E flat. This is another work not often heard today, but again, there is no reason for this based on the quality of the music alone. Perhaps it's because it, like the also-neglected no 89, doesn't use trumpets and timpani and therefore is less noisy and boisterous in its effect. Whatever the reason, no 91 has plenty in it to make it a completely satisfying experience for the listener.

After a gripping slow introduction, the main fast section starts with an extraordinary first subject in inverted counterpoint: the violins rise while the lower instruments fall, only to have each half of the orchestra swap parts before the first loud music of the fast section commences.

Theme and variation form again characterises the slow movement, a particularly delicate and exquisitely orchestrated example of Haydn's art. The first variation contains perhaps the most extended bassoon solo I've ever encountered in an 18th century symphony.

The bassoon is again given centre stage in the minuet third movement of no 91 (was Haydn writing with a particular player in the Loge's orchestra in mind?), while the finale shows that the young Beethoven, who was to soon study with Haydn, perhaps learned more from his teacher than he might have later cared to admit. [listen]

Composed in 1789, Haydn's symphony no 92 in G is the last of this group of three symphonies composed for the Count of Ogny, and the last of the eleven symphonies Haydn composed for the French market. However, even though it was composed for a Parisian commission, it is sometimes mistakenly thought to be one of the London symphonies because it bears the nickname "Oxford". But the "Oxford" symphony's nickname is a bit misleading.

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, where Haydn performed Symphony no 92

When he was in England in 1791 for the first of his two famous visits (which I’ll discuss in the next post in this series), Haydn was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University. For one of the three concerts he was scheduled to conduct in Oxford as part of the commemorative ceremonies, he is thought to have conducted this symphony and thus it acquired its “Oxford” nickname. But the symphony itself was written earlier, and not part of the six new symphonies Haydn composed for the first London visit. It was originally written for Paris.

Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (interior)

The "Oxford" symphony, though, regardless of its origins, is a magnificent work. The serenity and subtle use of harmony in the slow introduction immediately get us involved in the music's journey. And the start of the fast section on the dominant seventh rather than the tonic is amazingly powerful in propelling the music forward, and propelling us into the music. Haydn manages to perfectly balance driving power and complete elegance in this triple-time masterpiece.

The slow movement of the "Oxford" is remarkable for its sheer beauty and perfect balance of light and shade. Here Haydn approaches Mozart at his most sublimely operatic in the outer sections, with a violent central episode providing complete contrast. The focus on the winds here also approaches that of Mozart in his final years; that is, at exactly the time Haydn wrote this, and during which time the two men knew each other and heard each other's music, with mutual admiration.

The third movement minuet is yet again, perfectly judged in its moods, but it's the finale which sweeps all before it. The drone-inspired opening melody scampers away before the power of the loud music captures us and sweeps us to the end. Here Haydn again shows the way to the young Beethoven; there is much in this finale which reminds me of the finale of Beethoven's second symphony, composed more than a decade later. [listen]

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

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