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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 5

More symphonies for the Esterházys: 35, 38, 39, 41, 58, 59 and 65 (1765-69)

In 1989 I undertook a three-month study tour in the UK observing the work of two major British conductors. One of these was Trevor Pinnock, then at the helm of the period instrument orchestra The English Concert. All up I spent about six weeks touring all over the UK with the group as an observer and honorary roadie, sitting in on rehearsals, performances and recording sessions. For the whole of my time with them, The English Concert played programs entirely made up of the music of Mozart and Haydn, and the Haydn repertoire consisted of symphonies from the 1760s and 1770s.

(The other conductor I spent time with was Simon Rattle, then riding high on his enormous success as Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. I spent six weeks watching him rehearse and perform in Birmingham and London.)

I had already developed a soft spot for the Haydn symphonies but on this tour I had the opportunity of hearing some of these works for the first time, and getting to know them intimately as they were rehearsed, performed several times, and recorded for Deutsche Grammophon. One of these was no 35 in B flat, and this is one of the symphonies under consideration in this post, the fifth in our series exploring of all of Haydn's symphonic works.

In addition to no 35 we'll also discuss nos 38, 39, 41, 58, 59 and 65. The period in which they were written is 1765-69, and only no 35 is really able to be dated with any degree of certainty; the others are all open some conjecture as nearly all these works are only known from early copies rather than Haydn's own manuscripts.

No 35, though, is the exception. Haydn's own score for this survives and it has been dated to late 1767. At first glance it seems an unremarkable work but a closer look proves otherwise. Here we have a new Haydn and it's easy to see why. In 1766, on the death of Georg Werner, Haydn was promoted from Vice Kapellmeister to Kapellmeister in the court, now ruled by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy I, who had succeeded his brother in 1762. It was a golden time for music under the Esterházys; Prince Nikolaus was crazy about music, and made the most of having the brilliant young Haydn (who turned 30 in 1762) at his disposal. Now, as Kapellmeister, in addition to having responsibility for all the court's instrumental music, Haydn also had the added task of composing sacred music. He took to this with great enthusiasm, and many have noted in some of the symphonies from the late 1760s a new earnestness and seriousness which seems to reflect this new layer of musical creativity.

However at exactly the same time Prince Nikolaus opened a new private opera house as part of the expansion of his country estate (which was now called "Esterháza"). Haydn was also required to write comic operas for the entertainment of the Prince and his guests. Many of the symphonies from this very same period exhibit theatrical, even comic, effects, which seem to be directly connected with his work in opera.

Haydn directing a performance of his opera L'incontro improvviso in the Esterházy theatre in 1775

No 35 is part of the start of this trend. There are moments of eccentric fun in the way Haydn uses his material and in no 35 we also see possibly the earliest example of something which would become a feature of his wittiness in later years, namely the quotation at the end of a movement of the melody which started it. The slow movement of no 35 does this; so does the boisterous finale, which but for its repeats could very easily have been pressed into service as an overture for a comic opera. [listen]

If symphony no 35 was elegantly humorous, no 38 in C goes a bit over the top. James Webster, the noted Haydn scholar whose fifteen-part division of the symphonies is the basis for this series, refers to the mood of no 38 as "inspired foolery". Some of Haydn's later symphonies are known to be based on his actual music for the stage; whether no 38 (thought to have been written around 1767) does this as well is not known, but it sure sounds like it.

The first movement of no 38 is lots of fun. The general high spirits are enhanced an obvious musical joke in the development section where the harmony takes a tortured route to reach A minor, only to unexpectedly cadence in F major. The second movement of was clearly designed as a colossal joke. Haydn takes the fashionable notion of an "echo movement" and turns it into something close to a student farce. The second violins - muted - echo the ending of every phrase played by the first violins, even when it seems completely tactless or out of place. It's just like a little kid who insists on repeating what you say. It's fun at first; it just gets downright hysterical (or annoying!) by sheer force of stubbornness. I can imagine all the muffled giggles among the players and - eventually - the audience. The minuet and finale movements exhibit comic traits as well. [listen]

Symphony no 39 in G minor is a different matter entirely. This is another of Haydn's symphonies using four horns. Dating from 1765 or 66, it's also probably the first Haydn symphony entirely based in a minor key. (The slightly earlier no 34 in D minor, discussed in our last instalment, dispenses with the minor key after the first movement.)

No 39 is often cited as one of the earliest of Haydn's so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies. The Sturm und Drang movement in European arts in the 1760s and 70s (literally “storm and drive” although it’s usually rendered in English as “storm and stress”) was characterised by wild, passionate and dark emotional content and it’s something which clearly influenced Haydn as we'll see in the next two posts in this series. Whether no 39 quite fits that bill is open to some debate among scholars.

What is not in doubt is that Haydn's G minor symphony using four horns spawned a number of imitators among other symphonies of other composers, evidence that it became widely known. Turbulent G minor symphonies - two by JB Vanhal and one each by JC Bach and the young Mozart - appeared in the following years; the Mozart (no 25, K183) and one of Vanhal's also use four horns, itself an unusual feature for the period.

The first movement of Haydn's no 39 is disturbing right from the start. Quiet phrases interrupted by silences are enough to create the most unsettling feeling at start. The suppressed rage of much of the movement is also confronting. The result is one of Haydn's major symphonic achievements, and one of my favourite Haydn works. (I conducted it with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra more years ago now than I care to remember!) [listen]

Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt

We next consider symphony no 41 in C and move away from the dark side to bright major keys again. However no 41 has far less of the comic element we experienced in no 38; here we have a seriously-constructed and well-argued series of musical thoughts, albeit expressed in the happiest of ways.

No 41 has a 3/4 first movement which shows Haydn developing the larger sonata form structure we know in the later symphonies. This includes an immediate reprise of the opening idea before the movement really gets underway, and an extended coda at the end of the recapitulation.

The slow movement is one of the first in which the horns are involved; Haydn's slow movements (when placed second) were nearly always for the strings alone, and on rare occasions involved some of the woodwinds. But the inclusion of the horns in the slow movement here is rather a new idea. Both violin parts are also muted in this movement, something that would become common in Haydn's later middle-period symphonies. This slow movement gives pride of place to the flute, which has elegant arpeggios over the oboes and horns before it goes off on its own.

No 41 is one of those C major symphonies for which trumpet and timpani parts exist, but the earliest-known copy (made by Haydn's secretary and copyist Joseph Elssler)

doesn't contain them. There is also some dispute about the pitch of the horns; in C they could be high ("alto") or low ("basso"). Different recordings make different decisions in this and many other of Haydn's symphonies, which is why performances can so often differ quite radically in their overall feel.

Even without the trumpets and timpani - and with the horns in "alto" mode - the finale of no 41 is still amazingly exciting, one of those presto 6/8 movements which is so thrilling in performance. (This is another of my favourite Haydn symphonies, one I discovered on that UK tour in 1989. I conducted it not long afterwards with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, one of the very few times the work has been given in Australia.) [listen]

One of the grand salons at Esterháza, where Haydn and his orchestra may have performed symphonies for Prince Nikolaus

Next we consider Haydn's symphony no 58 in F. More than one observer has noted that this seems to progress from normal to eccentric. The first movement is elegant and controlled, starting out somewhat understated, compared to the first movements we've encountered in this article. But in the finale of no 58 Haydn completely goes off the rails, writing a presto in 3/8 which deeply disturbing at first. The second quaver of the bar is accented, making it hard for a while to get a grip on the pulse. Sudden changes of volume and harmony mark out the rest of the movement, which is over before you really get to feel at all settled. [listen]

The remaining two symphonies under consideration in this post are both in the key of A and are among Haydn's most "theatrical". No 59, composed around 1768, has a nickname which, as usual, does not come from the composer. Known as the Fire symphony, no 59 has no connection with a play called Die Feuersbrunst ("The Conflagration"), which was performed at Esterháza in 1774, or to an opera of the same name. Yet the energy is indeed theatrical and powerful, and in all likelihood the nickname was someone's description of the symphony's fiery beginning.

The finale of no 59 starts with the horns on their own, answered by the oboes, before the strings take over and get things hurtling toward a high-spirited conclusion. And again, note how Haydn repeats at the very end the music heard at the start. [listen]

Finally in this post we consider Haydn's symphony no 65. Scholars have had great difficulty in dating this work, and it was long believed to date from the period 1772-73. Current thinking among some scholars is to place it slightly earlier, thus putting it into the circa 1768 period of the other symphonies under discussion here.

The elegant, engaging first movement and the strange and unpredictable slow movement of no 65 lead to one of Haydn's most astonishing minuets. It starts simply enough, in 3/4 as it should, but after a few bars it sounds as if the music goes into 4/4. It doesn't actually go into 4/4 but it might as well. For four bars, Haydn stresses the twelve beats in three groups of four - against the bar line - rather than in four groups of three which is what the bar lines imply. I will never forget the first time I heard this music - which was during my student days - and it still manages to shock me whenever I hear it.

The minor-key trio is no less weird rhythmically, with ties across the bar completely disorienting our sense of the pulse. Rest assured, Haydn never changes the time signature. It's all done with aural mirrors, so to speak.

The finale of no 65 is a boisterous jig which gives pride of place to the horns, a fitting end to a glorious symphony, and to this part of our journey through all of Haydn’s symphonies. [listen]

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

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