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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 6

More symphonies for the Esterházys: 26, 42-44, 48 and 49 (1768-71)

Looking back on the career of a creative artist is at the same time a fascinating and a frustrating experience. Fascinating because of the way in which we can see how an artist has changed over time, and frustrating because often the root causes for some of those changes can only be guessed at.

In this post we embark upon the sixth instalment in our survey of the symphonies of Joseph Haydn and we reach a point - with the benefit of hindsight - which is both fascinating and frustrating. The period is 1768-71. Haydn was appointed Vice Kapellmeister to the Esterházy court in 1761 and in 1766, on the death of Kapellmeister Georg Werner, took on post of Kapellmeister himself. Already Haydn had been writing symphonies - and much else besides - for his music-loving employer, but in the late 1760s a change comes over Haydn's music, a change which has fascinated historians ever since.

In some - but by no means all - of Haydn's music at this time took on new qualities which have traditionally been aligned with a movement in German literature of the mid-1770s called Sturm und Drang. This term is usually translated as "storm and stress" (it literally means “storm and drive”) and it's characterised by heightened emotions, unpredictable and experimental flights of fancy, and greater personal expression.

That composers in the years around 1770 - and not just Haydn - wrote wild music which seems to fit this movement is not in question, but to call this Haydn's Sturm und Drang period is probably overstating the case. Nevertheless, Haydn did write some extraordinary music in this period which has the ability to shock, even today. It should come as no surprise that as he approached the tenth anniversary of his appointment to the Esterházy court, he continued his experimentation with the symphonic form. Already we've seen him bend and stretch the symphony in all sorts of directions. Now, around 1768, he started to produce darker, more personal, and sometimes bizarre works which are among his most fascinating creations. One could do a lot worse than call these symphonies Sturm und Drang, so Sturm und Drang it is.

van Bergaren: River Landscape (c. 1675)

We start with Haydn's symphony no 26. This work was traditionally dated to around 1765 but more recent research has put it a few years later, to either 1768 or 69. It is unusual for many reasons.

For a start it's based in a minor key - in this case D minor - something which was unusual in symphonies (and sonata-type works generally) at the time. Haydn wrote more minor-key works in his Sturm und Drang period than at any other time in his career, and certainly the use of minor keys for dramatic effect is a feature of much of his music at this time.

But no 26 has other special qualities. This turbulent, unsettled first movement, with its relentless syncopations, is overlaid with quotations of Gregorian chant for Holy Week. For this reason it has the nickname of the "Lamentatione" or lamentation symphony.

Another unusual feature is the fact that the minor-key first movement ends in the major key, something he had not done before and wasn't to do again for another 14 years. And ending in D major makes the key shift to the slow movement (which is in F major) all the more unusual. More chant for Holy Week appears in the second movement, too.

But the third and final movement - a minuet - is perhaps the strangest of all. Ending with a minuet was unusual but not unprecedented in Haydn's early symphonies, but this minuet avoids being light or courtly as one might expect a minuet to be. The minuet proper is in the minor key with strange harmonic turns and an angry exchange between bass and treble instruments as to where the tune really should be. The major key trio section in the middle has angry offbeat accents and otherwise seems to lack any real sense of direction, choosing rather to limp away in to the shadows before the reprise of the minuet. How Haydn's audiences reacted to such music we have no idea, but it certainly marks a new direction for the composer, that's for sure. [listen]

The next symphony under consideration here was written a couple of years later, in 1771, and we know this for certain because Haydn's dated manuscript survives. It's now known as symphony no 42, and structurally, it's a monster. When all the repeats are observed this symphony takes about half an hour, making it a very long symphony for its time. The first movement is enormous in its own right, with an unusual tempo marking ("Moderato e maestoso", moderate and majestic), and an extended structure which makes it seem as if Haydn couldn't hold in his ideas. We're back in major key territory for no 42, but the mood is still unsettled and frenetic in its own way.

The piece is in four movements, with the second movement indulging in some unusual rhythms. At one point Haydn crossed out a couple of bars where he thought he'd gone too far, noting in the score, Dies war vor gar zu gelehrte Ohren ("This was too much for learned ears"). After a large-scale minuet Haydn created a stunning finale. Again there's an unusual tempo marking ("Scherzando e presto", playful and very fast) and it takes the form of a set of variations. There are quirky jokes aplenty in this. [listen]

Symphony no 42 is the only Haydn symphony under discussion in this group which does not have a nickname, but as usual, the nicknames attached to many of the symphonies almost never come from Haydn. Symphony no 43 in E flat (which was probably written 1770 or 71) was given the nickname "Mercury" in the 19th century but it has no significance whatsoever.

What is interesting about no 43 - which is even longer than no 42 - is the way in which Haydn demonstrates his ability to keep his audience in the palm of his hand. The first movement starts with a strange, meandering melody which is interrupted by abrupt, energetic music. The whole thing never really settles down, providing another view of the Sturm und Drang question. Here the music fidgets, never one thing and never the other. Haydn is keeping us guessing, while creating what Charles Rosen called "relaxed beauty".

After a very long slow movement in which Haydn makes his structure amazingly clear, and a minuet which has a simple clarity of its own, the finale pushes the boundaries of what James Webster calls "eccentricity". Unexpected pauses on interrupted cadences, repeated offbeats and an unusually long coda are just some of the features which make this quirky music simultaneously odd and engaging. [listen]

Fuseli: The Nightmare (1781)

One of Haydn's most famous Sturm und Drang symphonies is no 44 in E minor, another minor key symphony, and another with a completely spurious nickname. It's usually called the "Trauer" symphony, a German word which means "mourning". A legend arose that Haydn wanted the slow movement of this symphony played at his funeral, and this was indeed played at a memorial concert for the composer in Berlin in September 1809, a few months after he died. This is the origin of the nickname, although there's no connection in the piece itself with a lament for the dead; these associations are external to the music.

What he do have in no 44 (which was probably written around 1770) is tight, tense masterpiece in which the minuet comes second and the slow movement third. Even though the composer’s association of the music with his funeral are fictitious, it's easy to see why people saw in the beautiful slow movement of no 44 such a potential. Typical of Haydn's slow movements at this time is his sense of calm confidence. It's also interesting, though, that by this point in his career Haydn is using the oboes and horns in the slow movements, whereas in his earlier symphonies the slow movements were usually exclusively for the strings on their own.

No 44 is rounded off by a tight and powerful finale in the minor key which packs a punch all its own. There is none of the fooling around we had in the finale of no 43; here all is very serious and very dark, prefiguring the mature Mozart in more ways than one. [listen]

One of the symphonies from this period which is heard reasonably regularly today in no 48 in C. It has the nickname "Maria Theresia" because of its supposed connection with a visit to Esterháza Castle by the Empress Maria Theresia in 1773. Sadly, we have yet again an example of a nickname which is at odds with the facts. It's now known that no 48 must have been written and performed some years before the Empress's visit, probably in 1768 or 69. The symphony actually played for the Empress in 1773 was possibly no 50, which will be discussed in a later instalment.

No 48, though, has a stunning brilliance about it, and it's not surprising that many saw in this symphony a work fit for royalty. The trumpet and timpani parts long used in this work are probably not by Haydn, but even without them, the clarion calls of the high horns in C send are thrilling (and are known to cause terror in those poor horn players who have to attempt them today).

Again we have a slow movement of huge proportions, with prominent parts for the winds, and a minuet which contrasts pomp and darker emotions. The finale of no 48 is a swift, fleet-footed piece of work, with the poor horns still at the top of their ranges, and the strings almost never stopping for breath. [listen]

Vernet: A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas (1773)

The sixth and final symphony under consideration in this article is again in a minor key; three out of six symphonies in a minor key is rare for Haydn, but indicative of the way in which he embraced the darker tonalities at this time of his symphonic career. No 49 is in F minor dates from 1768 and has acquired the nickname of "La Passione" (The Passion), but again there is no evidence suggesting that this work had any association with the Passion or Holy Week. Indeed, in the 18th century it had another nickname, "The Good-humoured Quaker" (although this is not from Haydn either). This suggests that the music for no 49 may have had some earlier incarnation as music for a play, or it may have been used as incidental music after it was composed as a symphony.

Here we encounter for the last time a Haydn symphony in which the slow movement comes first - not a slow introduction but an entire slow movement. The second movement is fast, followed by the minuet then the finale.

No 49 is another dark-hued masterpiece, with all four movements in F minor (a key associated with the darkest emotions in the 18th century), and all the movements constructed brilliantly; not a note is wasted. [listen]

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

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