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  • Graham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 2

A batch of early symphonies: 3, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 25, 33, 36 and “B” (1760-63)

The 106 or so known symphonies of Joseph Haydn constitute an enormous and highly significant body of work. They also chart the development of one of the most individual and creative musical minds of any age. Yet only a small proportion of them are heard today with any degree of regularity, so if nothing else, this series aims to reveal part of what is an incredible achievement spanning more than forty years.

In our last post we looked at some eleven symphonies which scholars believe were written by Haydn during his tenure as Director of Music to the court of Count Morzin. Haydn held this post from about 1757 until about 1760 - that is, in his late 20s. Haydn's exact whereabouts and employment in the period 1760-61 are unclear, and the dating of his symphonies written before the 1780s is notoriously difficult. This series is based on the division of Haydn's symphonies into fifteen groups by the musicologist James Webster and this second group contains highly individual and charming works which are very difficult to date: nos 3, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 25, 33, 36 and the one known as “B”. Some may come from the Morzin period, some may come from the beginning of Haydn's employment at the Esterházy court (which began in 1761) and some may have been written in between. They are generally regarded, though, as being from the period 1760-63.

Haydn's Symphony no 3 in G is in four movements, and scored for Haydn's regular basic ensemble of strings, 2 oboes and 2 horns. It is ample evidence of Haydn's skill in combining lighter entertainment with learned musical devices. The work is permeated with clever devices which might easily pass unnoticed to the untrained ear. The first movement, for example has examples of double counterpoint and the superimposing of several melodic ideas at once. The slow movement plays ingeniously in rhythm, while the minuet makes use of canons. The amazing finale, though, takes the cake, mixing fugue and sonata form in a way which anticipates Mozart's finale of the "Jupiter" symphony by nearly 30 years. [listen]


If we remember that the traditional numbering of Haydn's symphonies is notoriously inaccurate, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the next symphony in this mixed bag is the one known as no 14. This is a tight, elegant work in which not a note is wasted. There are a number of instrumental solos - for oboe and cello, for example - which is a trademark of some of the symphonies Haydn wrote in the early Esterházy period. It may have been written as late as 1763 but the fact is we have no idea when it was composed. The minuet movement shows the high, exposed writing for horns in A in the minuet. The trio is in the tonic minor and provides an elegant solo for the first oboe. [listen]


We next consider Haydn's symphony no 15 which shows - yet again - that the composer was always trying new ideas. In the previous post we discovered that many of Haydn's early symphonies begin with slow movements (and we also discovered that these were not necessarily meant for use in church, contrary to popular opinion). Of course the majority start with fast movements, but in no 15 we have the unique example of Haydn doing both. The first movement is in ternary form - ABA - where the A section is slow and the B section is fast. The slow section is not a slow introduction - as we find in many of Haydn's later first movements - but a self-contained sub-movement in its own right. The effect is unlike that of another of Haydn's symphonic first movements, and an experiment he never again repeated. [listen]


If symphony no 15's first movement was unusual, that of no 17 is no less remarkable. It is certainly one of the longest opening movements of any of Haydn's earlier symphonies, for one very important reason: it has two development sections. Haydn structures the movement in a sonata form structure, but the central development section is extremely long. Just at the point where Haydn gives every indication that he is going to return to the home key and start the recapitulation he breaks away and has a whole new development section. [listen]


Bellotto: View of Vienna from the Belvedere (1758-61)

Symphony no 17 is in three movements rather than four, something which characterises many of the early Morzin period symphonies. Also in three movements is no 19 and each movement contains examples of Haydn taking conventional forms and injecting interest at every opportunity. Many people criticise these early symphonies for having boring slow movements, something which is most definitely not the case. Many performers play the slow movements too slowly, that's one problem. But the other is that the energy Haydn invested in his slow movements is hard for us to see from our point in history. Listen to the slow movements of any of Haydn's contemporaries in the 1760s and you'll see what I mean.

The slow movement of no 19 is a sinister little number, almost tiptoeing around in its nightgown trying to sneak up and scare you. The occasional syncopated outbursts happen at just the right time. Haydn says "boo!" but he also helps you settle down after his little surprise. [listen]


Three of the symphonies under consideration in this group written in the early 1760s are in C major: nos 20, 25 and 33. In Haydn's way of thinking (and those of his contemporaries) C major was usually thought of as a festive key and in symphonies often meant the addition of trumpets and timpani. To make matters more difficult for us, trumpets and timpani were sometimes later added (either by the composer or someone else) to C major works which didn't originally have them. Nowadays it's hard to tell if some trumpet and timpani parts are authentic and therefore whether they should be used. In one list of Haydn's symphonies, no 20 is said to use trumpets and timpani; the recording we're going to hear doesn't use them. Clearly there are differences of opinion over this one.

No 20 is a bright, almost lightweight work in four movements. Trumpets and timpani to me seem out of place here, especially in the rollicking finale. The high, exposed writing for C alto horns, while treacherous for the players, seems to make trumpets unnecessary anyway. [listen]


Symphony no 25, which is also in C major is, despite its key, definitely not a "festive" symphony. It's in three movements which are configured most unusually. The opening movement starts with a long slow section which is far more than a mere introduction; it actually fits no known pattern and takes about a quarter of the movement in terms of duration. The remainder of the first movement is a fleet-footed fast section full of bubbling energy.

After this Haydn provides not a slow movement but a minuet and trio, followed by a brisk finale. But again, there are no trumpets and timpani in no 25, despite the key of C major. [listen]


No 33, though, is a different matter. Here C major is clearly interpreted in a festive context, and there are trumpet and timpani parts for this symphony which come from very reliable sources. In fact the sources imply a date of 1760 or earlier, so this makes it one of the symphonies in this group which can almost definitely be dated to the pre-Esterházy period. It's in four movements, the last of which is enchanting. The three loud notes at the start of the finale are answered by quiet phrases in the strings, setting this ingenious finale on its way. Later in the movement these three notes become increasingly important in driving the music forward through a series of unusual keys before returning to the home key for a satisfying conclusion. [listen]


It's the presence of solo parts which makes scholars believe that Symphony no 36 in E flat may be from Haydn's early years at the Esterházy court. The slow movement, an elegant adagio, is an extended duet for solo violin and cello against the accompaniment of the rest of the orchestra (the oboes and horns are silent in this movement, as was often the case in slow movements of the period). [listen]


Vienna: aerial view of the Hofburg

The last symphony from this mixed bag is the one known as Symphony “B”; it’s sometimes given the misleadingly high number of 108. This, along with the Symphony “A” (sometimes called no 107), was discovered after the traditional numbering was applied to 104 of Haydn's symphonies by Eusebius Mandyczewski in 1908. They are definitely early works and I provided a link to Symphony “A” in the previous post.

(In case you’re wondering, no 105 is used in the Haydn catalogue for the Sinfonia Concertante for four solo instruments and orchestra, which dates from Haydn’s years in London. No 106 is used for an unfinished symphony fragment dating from around 1769.)

Symphony “B”, has, in the words of James Webster, "baffled Haydn scholars". That it is early is certain, but beyond that there is nothing to clearly indicate its origin, other than the fact that it is unquestionably the work of Haydn. It has four movements, the first of which is very short. The middle movements place the minuet before the slow movement, after which comes a bustling finale.

The minuet movement is most remarkable, with the central trio section featuring a solo for the bassoon, something very rare for the time. [listen]


In the next article in this series we'll look at nine symphonies from the start of Haydn's illustrious career in the employ of the Esterházy family. It was an association which lasted for the rest of the composer’s life, and which led to the development of the symphony as we know it.

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2010.

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