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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 8

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

More symphonies for the Esterházys: 50, 54 (1st version), 55-57, 60 (1773-75)

Hindsight is a glorious thing and looking back over an artist's career permits us to see things from a privileged perspective. Being able to survey all of Joseph Haydn's symphonies - the creation of which was an artistic undertaking which spanned most of his creative life, from the 1750s to the 1790s - is an enormous, and highly enlightening, privilege.

This is the eighth post in a series of fifteen and we find ourselves in the years 1773-75. In the last couple of instalments in this survey we looked at Haydn's so-called Sturm und Drang period of the late 1760s and early 1770s. In those years he produced tense, dramatic symphonies of almost bizarre novelty and innovation, and many of these (such as the "Farewell" symphony) are justly famous.

However in 1773 or thereabouts another change comes over Haydn's symphonic writing. The tense, ground-breaking, even angry works of the Sturm und Drang period give way to an altogether lighter mood. In this article we'll hear a very different Haydn, and the six symphonies under discussion will show the composer's humour and wit coming to the fore. The question is, why the change?

1773 was a significant one in Haydn's work for the Esterházy court. In that year he started writing music for the theatre again, something he'd not done seriously for some time. In 1773 Haydn not only wrote a comic opera but also incidental music for a play. This work for the theatre developed over the next few years until the court eventually opened its own fully-equipped opera house in 1776. Thus Haydn had theatrical music, as well as concert and church music, to compose for his music-loving employer.

As it turns out, it wasn't just the mood of the theatre which can be found in Haydn's symphonies of this period; some of the actual music he wrote for the theatre was recycled in the symphonies as well. Symphony no 50 in C dates from either 1774 or 1775, but its first two movements began life as the overture to a little theatre work called Die Götterrat (The Council of the Gods). This was a prologue to a larger theatre work, a marionette opera called Philemon and Baucis.

The overture to the prologue originally had no trumpets or timpani, but the minuet and finale movements Haydn added to make the overture into a symphony include these instruments. Trumpet and timpani parts for the opening movements survive, but it's not certain who wrote them. They're usually included, though, to make the instrumental forces for the symphony uniform across the whole work. The first movement of no 50 has a slow introduction, something not unexpected in the theatre (where this music originated) but a rare feature in Haydn's symphonies before the 1780s. The main fast section of the movement creates theatrical bustle and energy, but it also works wonderfully in the concert context where, as James Webster points out, the energy becomes the drama.

The two movements Haydn added to make the overture into a symphony are, as one might expect, a minuet for the third movement and a fast finale for the fourth. The minuet is extraordinary for a number of reasons. Haydn here elevates the minuet from a mere diversion in a predictable structure to being of equal status - and interest - to the other three movements. The minuet itself is in a miniature sonata form, an idea which wouldn't be expanded upon until Beethoven's ninth symphony. The central trio is even more radical, as it abandons the usual structure of two repeated halves. Instead, it's "through-composed"; that is, a single piece with no repeats. Its key structure is also such that the reprise of the minuet is totally unexpected. [listen]

All the illustartions in this post depict Esterháza Castle in Hungary, where Haydn worked for much of each year. They are taken from the World Monument Fund's website:áza-castle

In a more conventional survey of Haydn's symphonies, symphony no 54 in G would come later as the version usually played today dates from a few years after the period under discussion here. However, uniquely among Haydn's symphonies, no 54 exists in several different versions. Haydn's score shows changes made on at least two occasions after the original version was written in 1774, and the first and last versions are quite noticeably different from each other. The 1774 version of no 54 opens with a dynamic first movement, marked Presto, which gives prominence to the horns. The musical argument is terse and compact with some unexpected harmonic twists and a development section which is longer than the exposition.

The slow movement of symphony no 54 is, if the repeats are observed, close to three times the length of the opening movement. It also has the tempo marking of Adagio assai, which was unusually slow for Haydn. It's elegant and timeless in a way only Haydn could be. [listen]

Symphony no 55 is perhaps the major example in the symphonies in this group of Haydn's embracing of the lighter style, which was a vital feature of his music in the later 1770s. No 55 has a nickname (“The Schoolmaster”) but this title has no known connection with Haydn as far as this symphony is concerned. Haydn did write a work with the nickname of "Schoolmaster" early in his career but this is now lost. It may be that a copyist attached the nickname to the wrong piece, but in any case no 55 is certainly an example of Haydn's light theatrical style being felt in his concert works which had no actual connection with the theatre. Some commentators feel the "Schoolmaster" nickname is derived from the slow movement, which could be taken to suggest a pompous school teacher perusing the work of his students, but there's nothing to suggest this idea had anything to do with Haydn.

An important feature of Haydn's new style was the degree to which theme and variation movements find their way into the symphonies. No 55 contains two - the slow movement and the finale - and the finale is vintage Haydn from beginning to end. [listen]

Haydn embraced a dazzling sound world in Symphony no 56. The key of C was "trumpets and timpani" key for Haydn but when he used trumpets and timpani in C the horns were often pitched in the lower octave (called C basso in horn terminology). Here in no 56, though, he uses high horns in C (called C alto). Horns in C alto usually replaced trumpets but here Haydn exploits two pairs of high brass instruments to create a dazzling sonic texture. This is especially evident in the brilliant first movement, marked Allegro di molto. Again, we're hearing music composed expressly for concert use, but the theatre is never far away and there are times when we could be forgiven for thinking we're hearing the overture to a comic opera.

No 56 contains another of Haydn's enormous slow movements, a long minuet with lots of twists and turns, and a very fast finale. In fact all the symphonies under consideration in this post have finales marked Presto or Prestissimo, something rather theatrical in itself. [listen]

Symphony no 57 in D has a similar structure, but with the added feature of a substantial slow introduction in the first movement. The slow movement is enormous and beautiful, another theme and variations, while the minuet keeps us guessing as to what will come next. Haydn seems to delight in keeping the structure masked in music which comes across as straight out of the Austrian countryside. [listen]

This group of Haydn's symphonies from the mid-1770s ends with one his strangest, and funniest, creations. As with no 50, we have here in Symphony no 60 a work which is not only inspired by the theatre but which uses music Haydn originally wrote for theatrical use. No 60, again in C major, has the nickname of Il distratto. This title (which can be translated as "The Absent-Minded Man") refers to a comic play for which Haydn wrote incidental music, and the incidental music was plundered by the composer to make this symphony which - uniquely in Haydn's output - has six rather than four movements.

The overture to the play was taken to make the first movement, while the second, third, fourth and fifth movements were originally the entr'actes between the play's five acts. The sixth and last movement was a short finale intended to be performed after the play had ended.

The play is a comic romp in the best commedia dell'arte traditions. Léandre, the absent-minded man of the title, forgets where he is, what he has done, why he does things, and so on. He even gets married one morning and has forgotten about it by the afternoon, and doesn't go home on his wedding night. The overture which became the symphony's first movement contains a passage in which the strings get softer and softer, as if they, like Léandre, have lost their way and are trying to remember where they are and what they're supposed to be doing. Even more funny on a purely musical level is the fact that just after the start of the development Haydn quotes the opening of the "Farewell" symphony, as if he to say that in all the mayhem he too has lost his way and accidentally stumbled into the wrong symphony.

The next four movements - the play's entr'actes - relate to the drama but also form a cohesive sequence of movements in the concert environment. Most famous though is the joke at the end. The sixth and final movement is very short, less than a minute and a half long, and this is the music which was designed to round off the play after the curtain had fallen on the final act. It contains one more reference to Léandre's forgetfulness: the violins have forgotten to tune their lowest strings. Somehow they've fallen to F (a tone too low), but they have to get them back up to G where they should be. After only a few bars the music stops and the violins very audibly re-tune - Haydn explicitly marks this in the score - then they romp home to a fun conclusion as if nothing happened. [listen]

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

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