top of page
  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 14

The first London visit: 93-98 (1791-92)

Joseph Haydn was a master at creating expectation, anticipation. He knew what he was doing with every note he wrote. As far as the symphonies are concerned, we’ve now reached no 93, the first of the twelve "London" symphonies. These works crown his engagement with the symphonic form which had started forty years before. In this post, the second-last in our fifteen-part survey of all of Haydn's known symphonies, we're going to look at the six symphonies Haydn wrote for his first visit to London.

Haydn by the 1780s was famous all over Europe, even though he himself had not travelled much at all. His fame had spread by virtue of his music. By the mid-1780s he was in full control of the dissemination of his music, and his sometimes questionable negotiations with publishers across the continent made him both famous and rich.

Haydn had been invited to visit England in the 1780s (more on this in Part 11) but these visits didn't materialise. It wasn't until 1790 that his circumstances radically changed, enabling him to think of new ventures.

In September of 1790 Haydn's employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, died. Nikolaus had been Haydn's employer since 1762, and he had provided the environment for Haydn to thrive, experiment and develop. He had also given Haydn greater freedom to compose for others in recent years, facilitating the composer's increased fame and income. The music-loving Nikolaus was known as "The Magnificent", as his tastes were expensive and wide-ranging. On his death, the title of Prince went to his son Anton, who immediately sought to rein in the court's debts and cut expenditure.

Prince Anton Esterházy

In the firing line, as is often the case even today, was music. Anton disbanded the court orchestra, retaining on salary only a small wind band for ceremonial purposes. Haydn was given a pension and told his services would no longer be required on a regular basis, so he left the lavish surrounds of Esterháza (the palace inspired by Versailles which Nikolaus had built in western Hungary) and moved to a rented apartment in Vienna.

Haydn was now freer than he had been for his entire professional life and he received offers of employment from various courts. He seriously considered taking up one of these - in Naples - but all this changed with the arrival of an unannounced visitor who - so the story goes - boldly stated to the 58-year old composer: "I am Salomon of London and have come to fetch you. Tomorrow we will arrange a contract".

Johann Peter Salomon was a German-born violinist, composer and entrepreneur who had been based in London for a decade, and now he was determined to get the newly-free Haydn to front his concerts in the English capital. He'd been on Haydn's case for years trying to get him London. It would be the musical coup of the century in a city which knew and loved Haydn's music and would go crazy over the man himself being there in person.

Salomon's gall paid off. He offered Haydn an astounding contract: £300 for an opera, £300 for six symphonies, a £200 copyright fee, £200 for twenty other smaller compositions, and a guaranteed minimum of £200 from a benefit concert: a total of £1200 minimum, at a time when £30 would rent you a comfortable house in London for a year. Once the details were settled, things moved very quickly, and Haydn arrived in England at the start of January 1791.

That crossing of the English Channel was the first time the 58 year old Haydn had seen the ocean.

The six symphonies composed for Haydn's first English visit are those now known as nos 93 to 98. Nos 93-96 were composed in London in 1791, in the order 96, 95, 93 and 94, while nos 97 and 98 were composed in the reverse order the following year. Most of them received their premieres in Haydn's second year in London, 1792. They were designed for Salomon's concerts in the Hanover Square Rooms, and they were universally received with near-hysterical enthusiasm. The press reports of the time, and Haydn's letters and journal, report on what could only be described as "Haydn Mania" which attended any of his appearances and performances.

Hanover Square Rooms, London

All of the symphonies composed for London are written in the four-movement structure which Haydn himself had helped establish as the classical norm: a fast first movement (usually with a slow introduction); a slow movement in a lighter, lyrical vein; a fast-paced minuet and trio; and very fast finale. All of the first set of six are scored for the same sized orchestra with two very minor exceptions. The standard line-up Haydn used was six woodwinds (pairs of flutes, oboes and bassoons), four brass (pairs of horns and trumpets), timpani and strings. The only variations to this are in nos 95 and 98, which each use only one flute.

Symphony no 93 in D was completed in London in early 1791, soon after his arrival. It was premiered on 17 February 1792, more than a year later.

Its powerful first movement is followed by a gentler slow movement which is nonetheless full of surprises. Solo string parts contrast with outbursts from the full orchestra, and the woodwinds are often given pride of place. Musicologists still wonder as to Haydn's meaning when, right near the end, the bassoons make a sound on bottom C which can only be described as flatulent. It shows that even in the most elegant of contexts, Haydn could have fun.

No 93 continues with a boisterous minuet with a military-sounding trio, and its finale is classic late Haydn, a fast 2/4 movement full of harmonic twists and turns and clever inventive touches. [listen]

Clever inventive touches abound in the next symphony in the traditional sequence, no 94. No 94 is one of Haydn's most famous symphonies, and all because of one very loud chord. This surprisingly loud chord in the slow movement has given the symphony the nickname of "Surprise" but this delightful gag has overshadowed the fact that no 94 is dazzling from start to finish.

After a classic, elegant slow introduction, the main section of the first movement is infectiously energetic. Never was Haydn more assured of himself. The swaggering 6/8 music is no less compelling than his other first movements, but there's a sense of delicious playfulness about it which defies description. The famous slow movement gag, though, is probably what most people remember.

The sudden loud chord in the slow movement of the "Surprise" symphony has, time and again, been connected with Haydn's supposed desire to waken his sleepy audience; one reads it in books and program notes all the time. The facts, though, suggest otherwise. In 1792 a rival concert series had been set up in direct competition with Salomon's series featuring Haydn. This rival series, called the Professional Concert, featured Haydn's own pupil, Ignaz Pleyel, as the star attraction. Despite the efforts of the press to whip up rivalry between the two, Haydn and Pleyel openly supported each other and attended each other's concerts, undermining any perception of tension between them. Still, Haydn felt pressure to be on the top of his game. When an early biographer, Georg August Griesinger, asked Haydn if the "surprise chord" was designed to wake up his audience, he replied:

No. Rather it was my wish to surprise the public with something new, and to make a debut in a brilliant manner so as not to be outdone by my student Pleyel...The enthusiasm reached its highest point in the Andante with the kettledrum beat...and even Pleyel complimented me on the idea.

(In German-speaking countries, the “Surprise” symphony is known as the symphony mit dem Paukenschlag - with the timpani stroke - suggesting that in performance Haydn expected that the timpani would provide the most surprising sound.)

Ignaz Pleyel

The finale of no 94 is perhaps one of Haydn's finest - although one could really say that about every finale of the twelve London symphonies. Like most of them, it's in 2/4 time, very fast, and completely irresistible in terms of its energy and power. And like all the late finales, it shows Haydn's trademark ability to blend memorable tunes which sound so easy with ingenious and devilishly complicated textures. [listen]

I have often wished I was brave enough to play this movement today without the loud chord, because that would be really surprising now that the symphony is so well-known. Imagine my fascination - "delight" is possibly not the right word - when I heard how Marc Minkowski and the Musicians of the Louvre performed it in their set of live performances… [listen]

Symphonies in minor keys were rare in the 18th century, but there were some. Haydn himself occasionally wrote darker-sounding symphonies in minor keys, especially in his so-called Sturm und Drang period two decades earlier. But only one of the twelve London symphonies is in a minor key and that's no 95 in C minor.

The actual date of no 95's premiere in London is not known but it breaks the mould in a couple of ways. For a start, there's no slow introduction to the first movement. In fact none of Haydn's minor key symphonies have a slow introduction to a fast first movement. Why this should be so is not really known and it seems odd especially when one realises that on occasion (such as in nos 101 and 104) Haydn wrote a minor key slow introduction, even if the rest of the movement is in the major.

Still, no 95 is not all minor key doom and gloom. The first movement starts in C minor but ends in C major, and even in the minor key sections one gets the impression Haydn is at pains to get into major tonalities as much as possible, or at least maintain a lighter mood. It's a movement of intriguingly mixed intentions, but one which works wonderfully nonetheless. It sounds as if Haydn has set himself the challenge of keeping his English fans entertained even in a minor key which they might find a bit "serious".

The slow movement of no 95 is in E flat major (although it has a central section in the very rarely used key of E flat minor) and the minuet returns to C minor (although the central trio section is in the major key). The finale abandons all pretence of dark seriousness with a C major romp which would certainly have been as temptingly toe-tapping in 1791 as it is today. [listen]

Haydn's next symphony, no 96 in D, returns to the boisterous and familiar mood of nos 93 and 94, and it's the another of the London symphonies to have acquired a nickname. Another of Haydn's early biographers, Albert Christoph Dies, reported that when this symphony was performed the audience had crowded to the front of the hall, near the stage, so as to get a better look at Haydn. At this moment the giant chandelier in the centre of the hall crashed to the floor but as the audience had moved forward, no-one was hurt. The nickname "Miracle" was applied to no 96 for this reason, but subsequent research has indicated that the event with the chandelier, while undoubtedly true, in all likelihood happened at the premiere of Symphony no 102 a few years later, and not when no 96 was played. Despite this, the nickname is now irrevocably attached to no 96 and shows no sign of being reallocated to no 102.

Chandelier or no chandelier, no 96 is as much a miracle as all the other London symphonies. It was also the first of this set of six to be heard by the London public, as it was premiered in Salomon's concert on 11 March, 1791, just over two months after Haydn had arrived in England. No 96 opens with a slow introduction which takes us through several emotional worlds in the space of a mere 17 bars, before moving seamlessly into the fast section - in 3/4 this time - which has us in its grasp before we know it.

All the London symphonies show Haydn giving more and more prominence to the woodwinds, something perhaps he learned from Mozart, with whom he spent a lot of time in 1790 before he left Vienna. Haydn heard the rehearsals for Così fan tutte and played quartets with Mozart in the months preceding his departure, and when the parted Mozart said, "We are probably saying our last adieu in this life". Haydn, 24 years older than Mozart, would most likely have assumed Mozart was referring to the fact that Haydn would die before they could meet again.

A year later in London, Haydn received the news that Mozart had died in early December of 1791. He was shattered by this untimely death of the composer he regarded as the greatest he had ever known. He regularly encouraged the performance of Mozart's works in England and sought to do what he could to help Mozart's widow. But the influence of Mozart, who more than perhaps anyone intrinsically understood the potential of the woodwind instruments, is evident in Haydn's late works as he too gave more prominence to the woodwind. (The late oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, written in the years after the final symphonies, bear this out). The third movement of no 96 is a case in point, where the central trio section gives pride of place to the oboe.

No 96 ends with yet another dazzling 2/4 finale. I never cease to be amazed at the fact that Haydn's inventiveness even at this late point in his career knew no bounds. Every one of these finales sets a cracking pace and never fails to thrill, and yet there's never the sense that Haydn is repeating himself or running out ideas. Every one of them sounds new, even today. [listen]

Premiered in May of 1792, symphony no 97 in C was the last-composed of the six symphonies written for Haydn's first English visit. Its opening shows Haydn (contrary to normal practice of the time) attempting to avoid establishing the tonic key in the introduction, even after it has been established by the first note. This very "modern" sort of harmonic syntax was not lost on Beethoven, whose own first symphony, written less than a decade later, avoids its tonic (also C major) even more assiduously than this. The arrival of the fast section, a 3/4 Vivace, rights all wrongs though, with the tonic chord outlined totally unambiguosly.

The slow movement of no 97 is a set of variations on an innocent-sounding tune, but it contains an extraordinary moment - also very "modern" - where Haydn instructs the violins to play sul ponticello. This is a technique more usually associated with 20th century composers like Béla Bartók, requiring the violinists to play with the bow right up against the bridge - much closer than usual - which creates an edgy, glassy, almost metallic sound.

The minuet and trio of no 97 have a couple of structural innovations, in that the usual repeats are missing. Instead, Haydn writes out the repeats of each half of the minuet and of the trio, sometimes with alterations which wouldn't be possible if each half was written to be repeated in the usual way. He also provides a little solo for Salomon - who was the concertmaster of the orchestra - at the end of the trio. The score indicates that for the last few bars of the trio, Salomon is to play an octave higher than the other first violins, but softly; Salomon's name is actually mentioned in the score.

The finale of no 97 is yet again a fast 2/4 movement full of both common and learned touches. It's perhaps one of Haydn's fastest; the tempo marking of Presto assai is very rare indeed. There are also passages in this finale which are reminiscent of the finale of Beethoven's first and it's entirely likely that the young Beethoven studied this work with Haydn in Vienna not long after it was played in London. [listen]

Beethoven may very well have known the remaining symphony in this first group of London symphonies, no 98 in B flat. No 98 opens with a suggestion of the tonic minor key , something Beethoven himself did in the slow introduction to his own B flat major symphony, the fourth (albeit in a very different mood). The fast sections of the first movement of Haydn's 98 contains much that reminds us of the equivalent section of Beethoven's fourth though, and for me it seems unthinkable that Beethoven would not have known this music.

The exquisite slow movement of no 98 begins with a passage which many commentators have noted sounds very much like the opening of God Save the King. Whether this was a deliberate allusion on Haydn's part is not known, but the similarity is unmistakable, even if it is fleeting. After a few moments the music becomes very reminiscent of the radiant slow movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" symphony. Was this a tribute to Mozart, who had died only a few months before this was written? Did Haydn know Mozart's final symphony? The "Jupiter" was composed in 1788 but we know nothing of its performance history in the remaining three years of Mozart's life, so we have no idea if Haydn ever heard it or saw a score. But the similarity in string and woodwind juxtaposition, not to mention the time signature, the rhythms, even the melodies, all indicate this is a distinct possibility.

After one of Haydn's more boisterous minuets, the finale of no 98 contains more surprises. For this to make sense it's important to realise that Haydn directed his performances in London from the keyboard. Charles Burney refers to Haydn playing the fortepiano, whereas other writers say he played the harpsichord. To my mind it's more than likely that Haydn played the fortepiano, that 18th century version of the piano which had a much lighter tone than the modern piano but which still struck the strings - like a piano - rather than plucked them, as a harpsichord does.

Fortepiano by Paul McNulty after Walter & Sohn, c. 1805

This doesn't mean, though, that Haydn played continuo throughout. It's more likely that he led from the keyboard now and then as required to set tempos; remember that these symphonies were premiered with little or no rehearsal. And this practice continued well into the 19th century as eyewitness accounts tell us Beethoven directed his symphonies the same way.

Anyway, in the finale of no 98 Haydn provided right near the end a little solo for himself to play on the keyboard. It seems to be a joke at his own expense, as the music, which has been moving at a blistering pace for most of the movement (and which contains violin solos for Salomon), slows down to make it possible for the non-virtuoso composer to play semiquavers.. It's delightful and quaint and I can just imagine Haydn making the most of his little moment in the sun. (Inexplicably, many older editions of the score simply omit Haydn’s little keyboard solo; just a word to the wise.) [listen]

Haydn's first visit to London lasted a little over 18 months. He left England in June 1792 and was back in Vienna by the end of July. He had promised Salomon he would return in 1793 but as it turned out the return was delayed until 1794. European war, and possibly Haydn's nose, intervened. But that will have to wait for part 15...

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

143 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page