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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 3

The first symphonies for the Esterházys: 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16, 40 and 72 (1761-63)

In this post we continue our trek though the wonderful world that is the symphonies of Joseph Haydn. In this, the third instalment, we come to the period 1761-63. This was a period of vital importance to Haydn, because it was in 1761 that he took up his new appointment as Vice-Kapellmeister to the court of Prince Paul Anton Esterházy. Georg Werner was Kapellmeister but Haydn took over that post on Werner's death in 1766.

Prince Paul Anton died in 1762 and was succeeded by his younger brother Nikolaus. Prince Nikolaus I was the man who gave Haydn the environment in which to create and experiment and develop in a way probably unprecedented in the history of music. Haydn served the Esterházys until Nikolaus I's death in 1790 and beyond, but that's for a later article.

Symphonies - concert symphonies in the sense we would use the term - were the great new invention of the mid-18th century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The major Esterházy palace was in Eisenstadt, about 65 km south of Vienna, but in later years the entire court would spend more and more time each year in the magnificent Esterháza Palace, much further away in what we now call Hungary. It was there that Haydn and the court orchestra eventually lived for most of the year, largely in isolation from the rest of Europe. Haydn was often to complain to his friends of his loneliness there, but for us this position had the happy outcome of giving Haydn the environment to grow as a composer. (On a more personal note, Haydn had married Maria Keller in 1760 while employed at the Morzin court; he had - like Mozart - married the sister of the woman he really loved but - unlike Mozart’s marraige - it was an unhappy union from the start. They separated as a couple but remained on civil, even friendly, terms while still sharing a house for much of the year.)

Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt

In this post we will survey nine symphonies which date from Haydn's first years with the Esterházys. These are nos 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 16, 40 and 72. The first three, uniquely in his output, form a trilogy.

Symphonies nos 6, 7 and 8 were given descriptive titles, one of the rare examples where the nickname of a symphony actually derived from the composer himself. They are titled in French - Le matin, Le midi and Le soir (Morning, Noon and Evening) - and they display another fingerprint of Haydn's early Esterházy years. The early Esterházy symphonies are characterised by frequent concertante or solo parts, turning them almost into miniature concertos for multiple soloists. Haydn's orchestra members were nearly all appointed at the same time he was; he was part of a new wind in the court's musical establishment. The solos in these early symphonies are elaborate - and beautiful - introductions of these superb players to their lucky employers. They also undoubtedly helped Haydn establish a rapport with his musicians.

No 6, the "morning" symphony, opens with one of Haydn's depictions of a sunrise. The freshness of morning then is invoked with the solo flute and the oboes propelling the main fast section of the movement on its way. The little woodwind solos later in this extract are almost like the players standing up and waving at the boss. It's delightfully fun.

In the elegant minuet movement of the "morning" symphony there are solos for the flute, and ensembles for the oboes, bassoon and horns on their own. In the minor-key trio there is one of Haydn's many solos for double bass, in a duet with the bassoon (neither instrument was thought of much as a soloist at the time; this was a very unusual thing to do), and they are later joined in a trio by the cello. Considering Haydn's orchestra at the time had only one cello, one double bass and one bassoon, this trio utilised the entire "bottom end" of his ensemble. [listen]

The "noon" symphony, no 7, contains one of the most extraordinary slow movements. It is, in effect, an operatic scene, with solo instruments replacing voices. The solo violin could so easily be an operatic heroine in the opening recitative, while the main part of the movement is a duet where the heroine is joined by her hero - a cello - and surrounded by the warblings of two flutes. [listen]

As for the "evening" symphony, no 8, the most overtly programmatic element is the in the finale, which bears the title of "La tempesta" (storm). This evening storm is powerful and energetic, with flute solos which suggest lightning, and more solos for the violin and another for the cello. On that point, it's worth remembering that Haydn directed his players from the violin and not from the keyboard. (This is the reason many scholars believe a keyboard continuo instrument should not be used in Haydn's Esterházy symphonies.) Whether the violin solos were for himself or his principal violinist in unclear. [listen]

Prince Paul II Anton Esterházy

As we found in the last two posts in this series, Haydn experimented a great deal in his early symphonies with the structure of the symphony's movements. Haydn's questions - whether or not there were three or four movements, and in what order these movements were - mark out the early symphonies as being fruitful and varied. Symphony no 9 in C is the next symphony we'll look at from Haydn's first years with the Esterházys, and it's most unusual. The three "morning, noon and evening" symphonies all had four movements, with the slow movement second and the minuet third. In no 9 we revert to three movements, but the structure is very odd: fast-slow-minuet. It's almost as if the finale has been lost, and some have speculated that this work might have originated as an opera overture. The internal evidence is against this, though, and it doesn't tally in terms of structure with the other Haydn symphonies which are known to have originated as opera overtures.

It seems, then, that no 9 is yet another experiment, and it's no less engaging or dazzling for that. The first movement is fiery, full of gestures rather than themes (as was the case in many symphonies of the period, and not just Haydn's). [listen]

Symphony no 12 is in the key of E major, a key which in the 18th century often held extra-musical associations. Handel and Mozart both used E major for statements of sublime beauty, and decades later Haydn did the same at the start of Part Three of The Creation. Here, though, there seems to be no such emotional content implied. No 12 is one of only two symphonies Haydn wrote in this key (the other is no 29 written in 1765) and on the surface its use here seems to be part of the composer's general quest for new musical sensations.

Certainly this is true in the central slow movement, which is E minor. Unusually this is marked "adagio", slower than the more usual "andante". And again, sharp minor keys (E minor has one sharp in its key signature) were rare in orchestral music of the period. Even more unusual is the fact that this movement modulates to the dominant minor - B minor - whereas B major would be expected. James Webster's notes for many of the recordings I’ve linked to here (those featuring The Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood) suggest that this may have had some sort of special significance for Haydn or his players which is now lost on us. What is not lost on us is the stern beauty of this music, which reflects that Haydn was already taking the symphony into much more serious artistic territory than most of his contemporaries. [listen]

Symphonies nos 9 and 12 were both in three movements; in no 13 we return to the four movement pattern, but there are a number of innovations. As in the "morning, noon and evening" trilogy, there is an independent flute part. This was unusual for Haydn; the Esterházy orchestra had two oboists on salary but here in no 13 there is a flute required with the oboes playing at the same time. A check of the paylists for the period in the Esterházy archive confirms that there was indeed a specialist flute player in the orchestra, one Franz Sigl, of whom more in the Part 4 in this series.

Even more out of the ordinary is the presence of four horns rather than two. Four horns became standard for the orchestra in the early years of the 19th century; here in the early 1760s it was a remarkable novelty. Haydn used four horns in only three other symphonies but this appears to be the earliest.

The opening movement of no 13 is remarkably powerful, with the winds and horns holding a chord over the driving, energetic string parts before the music rockets off in high spirits. [listen]

Haydn was a natural musician, of that there can be no doubt, but he was also very well-trained. From his boyhood days as a chorister at St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna to his later training under Nicola Porpora - as well as his own diligent self-training and study - he developed formidable technical skills in all sorts of composition. Symphony No 16 opens with one of the many examples of Haydn mixing his skill in counterpoint - writing in a fugal style an juggling several voices simultaneously - with his skills in dramatic timing.

The first movement starts with what appears to be a double fugue, but this is soon abandoned and a normal symphonic first movement ensues. The fugal material occasionally reappears, making this an extraordinary piece which happily, and successfully, straddles two worlds of musical thought. [listen]

Knoller: Prince Nikolaus Esterházy I

The last two symphonies in this group from Haydn's early Esterházy years have misleadingly high numbers - nos 40 and 72. This reminds us that the numbering applied to Haydn's symphonies in the early 20th century by Eusebius Mandyczewski are at times rather inaccurate, especially in the light of more recent research and discoveries.

No 40 is a strange work which scholars believe may have been put together by Haydn using movements written at different times. While Haydn occasionally used fugal elements in his symphonies (as we heard just now in no 16), the finale of no 40 is said to be the only movement in all of Haydn's symphonies which is a strict fugue from beginning to end. Yet despite this supposedly "academic" approach to writing, which was very unusual for mid-18th century symphonies, the movement fulfils its role as a finale most admirably. [listen]

The last symphony under consideration in this group, the misleadingly-numbered no 72, is another of those Haydn symphonies requiring four horns. No 72 bears many similarities with the famous "Hornsignal" symphony (no 31), which also uses four horns. The horns are in fact given pride of place, and right from the start we are made aware of this intention on the part of the composer. Horn players were rarely given centre stage quite like this! [listen]

The nine symphonies mentioned in this article mark the real start to Haydn's career as not only a writer of symphonies in the 18th century, but as the writer of symphonies in the 18th century. The start of his period in the service of the Esterházy court clearly aroused in the composer the desire to experiment and create music which was totally new. The next instalment in this series looks at nine more symphonies from the mid-1760s in which Haydn continued this development and set the foundation for his reputation as "the father of the symphony".

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

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