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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 7

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

More symphonies for the Esterházys: 45-47, 51, 52 and 64 (1771-73)

There's a Latin expression which pops up now and then - annus mirabilis - which is used to describe a wonderful or miraculous year. In the sciences it's used to describe the year spanning 1665-66 in which Isaac Newton made discoveries relating to calculus, motion, optics and gravity. It's also used to describe 1905 because of the discoveries made in that year by Albert Einstein.

In music a few years are sometimes referred to in this way. 1685 is an annus mirabilis because it saw the births of Handel, JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, for example. But sometimes there are conjunctions which relate to musical forms as well. 1886 is regarded as the annus mirabilis of the French symphony because in that one year the Franck D minor symphony, the Saint-Saëns "Organ" symphony, the Lalo G minor symphony and the D'Indy Symphony on a French Mountain Air were all written. And 1935 is a similar year for the British symphony; that one year saw the composition of Walton's first, Rubbra's first, Bax's third and Vaughan Williams's fourth.

But in the earlier life of the symphony as a form, 1772 stands apart, not because of the work of many composers, but because of the work of one: Joseph Haydn. This article is the seventh in our fifteen part series devoted to the entire symphonies of Haydn, and it brings us to one of the highest peaks in that mighty musical mountain range, 1772.

We must put out of our minds any thought that Haydn's long life and career were a steady progression to artistic maturity which only found its final expression in the twelve London symphonies of the 1790s. This theory - very popular in some quarters - does Haydn an enormous disservice and grows out of the notion that what comes after must necessarily be better than that which came before. Haydn's career as a symphonist - just putting aside his vast amount of other music for a moment - saw constant, constant freshness and intense responses to his circumstances. By 1772 he'd been an employee of the Esterházy court for more than a decade, and he'd been Kapellmeister since 1766. His symphonies are almost a diary of his life as manager of the permanent staff orchestra employed by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, and by 1772 his experiments in the symphonic form - some of them daring in the extreme - reached one of their climaxes.

1772 is the year in which Haydn wrote his famous "Farewell" symphony, now known as no 45. This initially angry-sounding work was written as a union statement on behalf of his players to protest the Prince's delay in returning to Vienna from his sumptuous summer palace in the country, called Esterháza (near the town of Fertőd in modern Hungary). It's also one of the so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies in Haydn's output, those symphonies which indulge in daring uses of harmony, discord, obscure keys and explosive energy. It's one of the best examples of the style, actually, and it dates from late 1772.


The “Farewell” symphony is often relegated into the “cute” basket by those only familiar with its unique ending, but on a purely musical level it is one of the most important symphonies of the mid-18th century. It's the only orchestral work by a major 18th century composer based in the key of F sharp minor, and even more outrageous is the frequent use of F sharp major. F sharp major has six sharps in its key signature and it's a key very rarely encountered after 1800, let alone before. In order to have his horns able to play in this key, Haydn had to order special half-step slides for his players; the court records confirm the payment to a local horn maker for these in October 1772. Without these attachments, the symphony - and especially the minuet in F sharp major - would have been simply unplayable for the horns. It's for this reason, I'm sure, that Haydn shows off the horns at the start of the central trio section.

The symphony as a whole is full of unresolved musical lines and wistful thoughts which are cut off in mid-sentence, representing, I have no doubt, the thwarted desires of Haydn and his musicians. The fiery finale starts with some of the angriest, darkest music Haydn wrote. You can hear the seething resentment in the music. But just when it seems like it's all going to end in a blaze of fury, Haydn pulls the rug out from under us. The music stops in its tracks and a new slow section starts.

Prince Nikolaus would have been completely perplexed at this. The slow music is yearning and hopeful, and it's saying "we want to go home". But the Prince hadn't seen anything yet.

At a certain point, the first oboe and second horn stood up, blew out their candles, bowed to the Prince, and left the platform while the remaining musicians played on. Later, the bassoonist did likewise. Then during a solo for the double bass, the second oboe and first horn withdrew. Only the strings were left.

The double bass left after his solo, then all the first violins except the front two players, while the music enters F sharp major. Eventually the cello departed, followed soon after by the second violins. Only three players - two violins and a viola - remained.

Eventually the viola left, leaving the two solo violins - Haydn and Tomasini - to complete the symphony on their own, blow out their candles, bow to the Prince, and leave the darkened platform. The story of the origin of the "Farewell" symphony is only part of its magic, but to be sure, and the musical power of the work, quite apart from the theatrical ending, make it a miraculous piece. [listen]

But 1772 contained far more than this. Symphony no 46 is in the also remote and unusual key of B major, and Haydn's horn players would have needed their new attachments to manage this piece as well. It seems to be a companion piece to the "Farewell" symphony for a couple of reasons. One is the unusual sharp key (B major has five sharps in its key signature), the other is that here again Haydn writes a finale with an unusual structure, although unlike the "Farewell", all the players are still on stage at the final bar.

After a sneaky-sounding slow movement, no 46 has a minuet in the home key which seems to be all swagger and gallantry. In the finale, Haydn creates music which, in 1772, would have been regarding as verging on mad. The tempo marking is Presto e scherzando - very fast and playful - and fast and playful it certainly is. The sudden stops and momentary plunges into the minor key are most noteworthy, but the overall mood is nervous and frantic. Then just when it sounds like it's going to end, Haydn reintroduces music from the middle of the minuet, after which there’s a comic ending. Again, Haydn created something unique and fascinating. [listen]

The noted Haydn scholar James Webster, whose work is my primary source in these posts, has suggested that no 46 was written and performed around the same time as the "Farewell" symphony, that is, in late 1772. No 47 was probably written a little earlier in the year and it too is a stunner.

No 47 is in a conventional key - G major - and it doesn't have overtly bizarre structural features. But it has a beauty and an energy which really makes it stand out in my book; it's one of my favourite Haydn symphonies. I've always found the piled up chords in the oboes and horns at the start totally engaging and interesting, and what Haydn does with this figure alone in the first movement is fantastic. Later he thrusts the whole thing into the minor key for the recapitulation, making the piled up chords even more dissonant before switching back to the major as if nothing happened.

The slow movement of no 47 is an amazing mixture of variation form with contrapuntal tricks that are so subtle they could easily be missed. However the most interesting trick, for want of a better word, comes in the minuet.

The minuet is written in the normal structure - both minuet and trio are in two halves, each of which is repeated. However in each case, the second half is the first half played backwards - note for note, in every part. Both minuet and trio are complete palindromes, and Haydn made things more fun for his players by only giving them the first half in their parts. They had to read it backwards on the spot to get the second half.

Symphony No 47 ends with a dazzling finale, making yet another brilliant symphony from this amazing year. [listen]

Esterháza at night

These three symphonies - 45, 46 and 47 - date from the one year, 1772, and each is a masterpiece of creativity and ingenuity while at the same time being totally satisfying as a work of art. The remaining three symphonies under consideration in this instalment are less easy to date as Haydn's autograph scores don't survive, but no 51 is thought to have been written around 1773.

Like the three we've already discussed, no 51 showcases the horns, although here Haydn goes completely overboard in challenging his two horn players. If this symphony is any indication, they must have been stunningly good musicians, because it contains music that is frighteningly difficult for them. It was probably written in 1773.

The slow movement opens with music that is astonishing. The first horn is required to go up to the A flat on the first ledger line above the treble staff in the opening melody, and after this the second horn heads down to the B flat below the bass staff, nearly four octaves lower. Other exposed passages happen in the remainder of the movement which is unlike anything I know from the period.

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

The nightmare for the horns doesn't end there. The minuet - uniquely in Haydn's symphonies - has two trios, and in the second the horns again span heaven and hell. The first horn hits a high B flat above the treble staff n the fourth bar, while the second horn has virtuosic descending triplets in the second half which end with a leap of two octaves. And yet it's all so elegant. [listen]

Another of my favourite Haydn symphonies is no 52, which James Webster places slightly earlier than the ones we've heard so far in this post. He dates it to around 1771, possibly the year before, but whenever it was written, it's a great piece.

The Sturm und Drang period saw Haydn and other composers delving far more into minor keys than they had before and no 52 is in C minor, the same home key as Beethoven's fifth. In fact I feel some sort of affinity between these two works and can't help feeling that in no 52 Haydn was searching out new territory in much the same way that Beethoven did a few decades later in his C minor symphony. (I once, with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, had the opportunity to conduct both works on the same program.)

The finale of no 52 is reminiscent of the finale to the "Farewell" symphony in its anger and turmoil, only here there is no gimmick, no happy ending. It's a side of Haydn we don't think about often, but it proves that he was capable of writing music which is immensely powerful. The fact that the first 45 bars of the movement are soft makes the eventual outburst of forte all the more effective. Perhaps here Haydn comes closest to capturing the mood of the finale of Mozart's G minor symphony, no 40, which was written more than 15 years later. [listen]

We venture back into the sunlight for the last symphony on the list for this group, which is no 64 in A. This, like no 51, probably comes from 1773. It is on the short side compared to the others we've looked at here, coming in at only about 20 minutes even when all the repeats are observed, but it's no less attractive for that. The first movement is deceptively elegant, occasionally showing a few surprises under its affable exterior, but it's in the slow movement that Haydn lies in wait for us. James Webster refers to the second movement of no 64 as being "arguably the most eccentric movement Haydn ever composed".

A set of authentic parts for this symphony are wrapped in a piece of paper with the Latin words "tempora mutantur" written on it. These words, which mean "the times are chang'd", come from an epigram by the Elizabethan poet John Owen which was known on the continent in Haydn's day. The translation of the epigram is:

The times are chang'd, and in them chang'd are we: How? Man, as times grow worse, grows worse, we see.

It's believed that the bizarre second movement is the reason these words were written on the wrapper, but whether this connection was made by Haydn is unknown to us now. In any case, the words "tempora mutantur" have become no 64's nickname.

The second movement of no 64 is, in part, a musical reflection of the sort of fun use of words in which we delay saying the words which are expected, only to say them as the start of a new sentence. An example (and this is my own doggerel) would be:

I ran down the road and fell....Over and above all of that I couldn't ask for...Morning and afternoon are my favourite times of....Dazed by the light I couldn't open my...I see what you mean.

In this music the progression we expect is replaced by silence, after which we hear what we expected but as the start of a new phrase, not as the end of the old one. It has the potential to be deeply disturbing, and as usual Haydn shows he can have us in the palm of his hand. If you're not sure how to approach the second movement just try to imagine what you think is going to come next. You may be driven to distraction but you'll have the best time getting there!

After that truly bizarre music - there's no other word - Haydn concludes no 64 with an elegant but cheeky minuet and a presto finale which I guess we could describe as "happily eccentric". [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2011.

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