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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 4

More symphonies for Esterházys: 21-24, 28-31, 34 (1764-65)

In 1761 Joseph Haydn entered the service of the noble Esterházy family in the post of Vice Kapellmeister. The Kapellmeister was Gregor Werner, who was elderly (68 at the time, an advanced age for the 18th century) and increasingly frail. Haydn, even as Vice Kapellmeister, was given responsibility right from the start for all instrumental music at the court; Werner's duties were limited to church music.

(You can read more about Werner - who was a talented composer and who has had a bit of a raw deal from history because of his vexed relations with Haydn - here.)

The Esterházy retinue moved among three establishments: a palace in Vienna, a country estate in Eisenstadt, and a castle at Kittsee. Wherever they were, Haydn had to wait twice daily upon the Prince to receive orders for what music would be required and when. Haydn would then arrange the required performances with his ensemble of musicians who, like Haydn, were liveried and salaried members of the court establishment.

Castle Kittsee, rebuilt by Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, Haydn's first employer in the Esterházy court

Even though the details of his employment would change (especially when he took over as Kapellmeister on Werner's death in 1766), this was the core of Haydn's life for the next 30 years or so.

The daily concerts Haydn arranged comprised music by many different composers. His own music was present, of course, but he also secured copies of music by the most fashionable composers of symphonies elsewhere in Europe, and the concerts also included vocal music. But it was for these concerts that Haydn wrote most of his own symphonies, and this article is the fourth in our series exploring this remarkable body of work.

The nine symphonies under discussion in this post date from 1764 and 65, when Haydn was in his early 30s. Unusually, they are nearly all able to be dated rather accurately as original source materials have survived for eight of them. What then is very striking is the fact that over the space of about two years, Haydn wrote nine very different symphonies. In other words, right from the start of his employment at the Esterházy court, Haydn was experimenting with the symphony as a form, trying out new ideas, and creating fascinating art.

Symphony no 21 in A was written in 1764. As we've seen in previous instalments in this series, Haydn occasionally started a symphony with a slow movement - not just a slow introduction, but an entire slow movement - and three of the nine symphonies in this article do this. The second movement is then fast. No 21 shows that the swapping of slow and fast for the first two movements was not a simple cosmetic change. When placed second, Haydn's slow movements in this period nearly always have the winds tacet, requiring only the strings. The slow movements, when they come first, usually use the oboes and horns. In other words, these are not slow movements that just happen to be put first; they're first movements that just happen to be slow. These opening slow movements would sound wrong if they were put second.

Likewise, the fast second movements wouldn't really work if they were placed first. The second movement of no 21 is a presto of great energy, but it works best as a foil to the gorgeous slow music which precedes it. [listen]

Haydn's next symphony, no 22 in E flat, seems on the surface to repeat the experiment of no 21 with regard to the order of its movements but there are some major differences here. Firstly the slow movement which opens the symphony is enormous. When the repeats are observed it takes about ten minutes, which is as long as the other three movements put together.

Then there's the instrumentation. Haydn's usual orchestra comprised oboes, horns and strings, but here the oboes are replaced by cors anglais. The cor anglais (a tenor oboe, still a regular member of the modern symphony orchestra) was used by Haydn (and his contemporaries, like Gluck) to great effect in concert music, church music and opera. Here Haydn exploits their special colour in the opening slow movement, where they and the horns play fortissimo against the strings (marked piano). The strings are given a steady, pacing sort of figure, a feature which has given this symphony the nickname of "The Philosopher", although as usual, the nickname didn't come from Haydn.

A late 18th century cor anglais

The symphony is far from being overly learned or philosophical, though. The finale is a dazzling virtuoso piece for every player in the ensemble. [listen]

Like the two symphonies already discussed, no 23 was also written in 1764. Here the more usual order of movements prevails - fast, slow, minuet, fast - but there are clever touches throughout. The key of G major requires horns which are pitched rather high, and the return to oboes brings us back to Haydn's usual orchestral palette. The phrases in the first movement are of unusual and unpredictable lengths, and there's an elegant but nonetheless powerful feel to the way the first movement drives on, even though it's not particularly fast. [listen]

In many Austro-German works of this period - and not just those of Haydn - the flute was regarded as an additional extra and not as a core member of the orchestral ensemble. The flute was usually played by one of the oboists if a flute part was required, although at the Esterházy court this was not the case; a specialist flute player was on the payroll as well. His name was Franz Sigl, who started working for the Esterházys in 1761, about the same time Haydn did.

Copy of a Belgian flute dated to around 1760, with different middle joints to enable it to be played in different pitches ranging from about A=398 to A=435

He seems to have been a bit of a character; he was sacked in September 1765 when he set fire to a roof while shooting some birds, but Haydn intervened on his behalf and managed to get him reinstated the following year. Haydn wrote a flute concerto for Sigl which is unfortunately now lost, but the slow movement of symphony no 24 (written in 1764) is a concerto movement in all but name; it even has a spot for a cadenza.

The other three movements of no 24 dispense with the flute and have the usual oboes. This meant that if the symphony was played elsewhere an oboist could double on flute if required. Even at this relatively early stage of his symphonic career Haydn was thinking of the larger musical world outside the Esterházy court. [listen]

The four symphonies already mentioned here date from 1764. It is known that the next four date from 1765 and in these Haydn continues his never-ending quest to hone his creative skills and explore new ideas. The first of the 1765 symphonies is the one known as no 28. Like a number of its immediate predecessors it has a very fast 6/8 finale, and it also has an enormously long slow movement (this time placed second). The first movement is tense, concentrated and totally unified in its ideas and the way they're developed. [listen]

The second of the symphonies dating from 1765 is no 29, one of only two symphonies Haydn wrote in the key of E major; the other is no 12. E major was a key of complete nobility and serenity to many 18th century composers, and it was saved for the most special of utterances. Handel used it for "Comfort ye", "Ev'ry valley" and "I know that my redeemer liveth" in Messiah, and Mozart used it for Sarastro's second aria in The Magic Flute ("In diesen heil'gen Hallen"). Haydn himself later used it to open the Garden of Eden scene at the start of Part Three of The Creation, and here in symphony no 29 he uses E major in three of the symphony's four movements. Even marked Allegro di molto - a very fast tempo indication - the first movement has an elegance about it which seems to be inspired by its key. [listen]

The remaining two symphonies which definitely date from 1765 have nicknames. The first, no 30 in C, is known as the "Alleluja" symphony. The title is not on Haydn's autograph score but it does appear on several very early copies. It reflects the fact that the first movement is built on a fragment of plainchant used during Holy Week. This in turn reminds us that Haydn's symphonies - and symphonies in general - were often played in church services, although whether or not no 30 was specifically intended for church use is not clear. It might just be that Haydn was quoting a melody the Prince and his guests would have recognised.

It is important to note, though, that no 30 only has three movements. By this point in his career four movements had become the norm for Haydn, so a three movement structure might suggest it actually was used in church services.

The symphony can be dated to 1765 because Haydn wrote the year on the score, and it must have been played before 13 September of that year as it has a prominent flute part in two of the movements. 13 September was the date Franz Sigl was dismissed.

The finale of no 30 is in the tempo of a minuet so it fulfils the role of the traditional third movement and of the finale at the same time. [listen]

The other nicknamed symphony from 1765 is one of Haydn's better-known earlier symphonies, no 31 in D, known as the "Hornsignal" symphony. While it's not the only one of Haydn's symphonies to use four horns, it certainly gives the four virtuoso horn players Haydn had at his disposal the most extraordinary showcase for their talents. The slow movement of no 31 has major solos for violin as well as the horns, and there are solo passages for the cello as well. In the minuet movement all the winds get into the spotlight in the trio.

A natural horn such as Haydn's players would have used, with different crooks which enable the instrument to play in different keys

But it's the last movement of no 31 which turned into a veritable showcase of Haydn's players. In a set of variations Haydn gave prominent solos not only to the four horns but also to the flute, the oboes, the cello, the violin and the double bass. As Haydn led his ensemble from the violin he may have played that solo himself, or it may have been played by his principal violinist Tomasini. The variations conclude with something almost unheard of: the horn fanfares from the first movement return, bringing this dazzling concerto-like symphony to a close. [listen]

After eight symphonies which can be so accurately dated - four from 1764, four from 1765 - it is frustrating that the last symphony under consideration in this group is much more difficult to pin down. No 34 in D minor is a four movement symphony but Haydn's manuscript has not survived. It has features which connect it with 1764/65, such as starting with a very long slow movement, but the fact that the first movement is in a minor key links it with Haydn's more daring experiments in that area from a couple of years later. It's pretty certainly mid-1760s but beyond that scholars are unsure. The instrumentation returns to Haydn's basic group of two oboes, two horns and strings.

Only the first movement of no 34 is in the minor key; the remaining three are rather bright, in the major. The finale, a jolly jig, is a total contrast. [listen]

As we progress through the symphonies of Haydn I hope you're starting to get an impression of how endlessly inventive the man was, and how incredibly skilled he was in bringing his ideas to fruition. Lots of us can have interesting ideas, but to have the technique to make great art from those ideas... Well that's the lot of a chosen few, and Haydn was definitely one of those.

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

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