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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Symphonies: Part 9

More symphonies for the Esterházys: 53, 54 (2nd version), 61, 66-69 (1775-76)

This is part nine of our survey of all the known symphonies of Joseph Haydn. In recent posts we've witnessed a major shift in Haydn's symphonic style, from the dark and stormy works from the years around 1770 to the lighter, theatrically-inspired works of 1773-75. The seven symphonies under discussion in this instalment continue this trend, but it's been a trend which has been - I think - misunderstood by many commentators.

The dark, at times bizarre, symphonies of the Sturm und Drang period culminated in the masterpieces of 1772: the “Farewell” symphony, and nos 46 and 47. Some writers over the years have seen Haydn's move into a lighter style of symphonic writing from 1773 as a disappointment, even a selling-out. Some have conjectured that Prince Nikolaus had had enough of the dark stuff and wanted some easy listening.

Frankly this seems like nonsense to me. It's amazing that people can on the one hand praise Haydn as a supreme genius (which he was) and at the same time accuse him of being cheap. An examination of the music itself - which is after all what really counts - proves otherwise. Haydn's symphonies from 1773 are less angry, less bizarre, but seriously, how much further down that road could he have gone? A reaction, a balance, was necessary, for reasons of sheer logic apart from anything else.

Add to this the fact that Haydn at this time renewed his contact with the theatre, and most especially the writing of comic operas for the Prince's private opera house, and we realise that the composer's energies and inspirations were to be found here and not in the dark recesses of the mind.

And the symphonies from 1773 themselves are no less inventive, no less interesting, and no less beautiful than the Sturm und Drang works, even if they are happier and brighter and of a completely different character. Haydn's spirit of innovation was undiminished during the 1770s, and the symphonies we'll look at here very much prove the point.

Schloss Esterházy (Esterházy Castle) at Eisenstadt, about 65 km south of Vienna. This was the other major property owned by the Esterházys in which Haydn worked.

Symphony No 53 is thought to date from the late 1770s. It has the French nickname "L'Impériale" (The Imperial) although no-one knows why. It was added to the work in a 19th century French catalogue and does not originate with the composer. The symphony went through some revisions at Haydn's hands, and in its original form had as its finale an overture to one of Haydn's theatre works. In November 1779 there was a disastrous fire at Esterháza castle and most of the court musical archives were lost. It was probably because of this that Haydn made a new version of the piece around 1780, adding a slow introduction to the first movement and writing a new finale. This finale has the heading "Capriccio. Moderato". It's a perfect example of Haydn's "new" style: bright and cheery but no less brilliant, dazzling and clever. [listen]

In the last post in this series we discussed the fact that Symphony No 54 exists in two very distinct versions, and I provided a link to the original version from 1774 there. Haydn's score shows major changes, including an expansion of the orchestration, and the final version from around 1776 is the one usually played today. This version uses the largest orchestra Haydn used in any symphony before those written for London in the 1790s; it requires pairs of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets with timpani in addition to the strings.

Haydn also made many other changes in the course of revising No 54. A slow introduction was added to the first movement and the result, with the expanded orchestration, is very imposing.

Like its earlier version, No 54 has an incredibly long slow movement which lasts nearly 18 minutes when the repeats are observed. It inhabits a completely different, hypnotic world, which is swept away by the rustic minuet which follows it. The central trio section of this movement has a characteristic Haydn sound: the movement is for strings alone, apart from the bassoon, which doubles the melody an octave lower. [listen]

Symphony no 61 in D, which we consider next, is a perfect example of the lighter sort of symphony Haydn was writing in the mid-1770s. (All the remaining symphonies discussed in this article date from 1775 or 76.) As the noted Haydn scholar James Webster points out, it is, in the best sense of the word, "entertainment". What is sad is that many commentators see this as a bad thing. Entertaining no 61 might be, but this doesn't mean it's not superbly well-written. Haydn's ability to harness energy and maintain interest is ever-present, and this elegant masterpiece never fails.

The finale of no 61 is one of Haydn's most breathless. It's in 6/8 but marked Prestissimo, meaning it's so fast it has one beat to the bar rather than two. It's also very cheeky, and, as always, entertaining. But a disappointment? Never. [listen]

Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt: Haydnsaal (Haydn Room)

Symphony no 66 in B flat has a lot in common with No 61, but it also stands apart for a couple of reasons. It opens with music which is based on the same overture which Haydn used as the original version finale of Symphony no 53 but soon the composer adapts the music to make it a totally new piece. There's another languid and hypnotically beautiful slow movement, and a minuet which shows Haydn in a very silly mood. But the finale of no 66 is the first in Haydn's symphonies which sounds like the rondo finales of the late symphonies: a rondo structure on a melody in five-bar phrases, with lots of complex, layered interplay between parts and a driven energy which propels us to the end without any question of stopping. It's vintage Haydn before it became vintage. [listen]

Symphony no 67 in F is one of the middle-period period symphonies which is a little better-known today. (I've no idea why this one has been singled out for more frequent performance.) Like all the symphonies of this period the mood of the theatre is never far away, although there's no evidence that this symphony is based on Haydn's operas or incidental music. James Webster says it has "the whiff of the stage", and that, along with its energetic first movement and uniquely-constructed finale, makes it stand out from the crowd a bit.

The slow movement of no 67 also stands out for a number of reasons. It's of a distinctly ambiguous mood, between comedy and sentiment according to Webster, but within the context of a purely entertainment-oriented symphony, it comes across as decidedly serious. Yet at the end Haydn says, in the manner of Kenny Everett, "It was me all along!" by having a definite joke. The final few bars have the melody played col legno: the strings tap out the notes quietly but percussively with the wood of the bow. It's absolutely delightful.

In the central trio of the minuet movement, the music is played by the two principal violins (who would have been Haydn himself and his Concertmaster, Luigi Tomasini), muted and alone, and the second violin has to tune the G string down to F in order to play its bassline.

On top of all this, the finale of no 67 contains a slow section introduced by three solo instruments in the middle of an otherwise fast movement, something Haydn did in no other symphonic finale. All up no 67 is innovative on many levels. [listen]

Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt: Orangery

In our earlier posts on the Haydn symphonies we encountered several occasions on which Haydn re-ordered the plan of the middle movements of his four-movement symphonies. Normally the slow movement comes second and the minuet third but sometimes he swapped them. In our next symphony, no 68 in B flat, we have the last time in his symphonic career that Haydn did this.

Changing the order of the middle movements was not just an arbitrary whim; the symphony would feel different if they were the other way around (something Gustav Mahler knew very well!), and the music rally does seem to work best in the order in which Haydn presents it. The first movement is marked Vivace (lively) and the boisterous minuet which follows seems absolutely natural in second place. The slow movement, coming third, is bizarre. It seems to mix its moods even more than did the slow movement of no 67, and the sudden loud "ticking" notes are startling to say the least. [listen]

The last symphony under discussion here is no 69 in C, a lighter, instantly appealing work which would have been very popular right from the start. By this point in Haydn’s career we're getting into a more monumental style of symphonic writing which is more discernibly "orchestral" rather than "chamber". The bassoons have more independent writing, rather than being limited to doubling the cello and bassline, and the whole feeling of the music is grander and more "solid".

Haydn's symphony no 69 has a nickname. It's called the "Laudon" symphony and for once there is a connection, albeit a slight one, with the composer. Laudon refers to a famous Austrian Field Marshal, Ernst Gideon von Laudon. The publisher Artaria decided to add his name to a keyboard version of the symphony's finale as a means of increasing sales of the arrangement, even though there’s no actual connection between the music and the soldier. Haydn knew of this and approved its use to help sell the arrangement, which he thought wasn't very suitable for keyboard in the first place. Somehow the nickname became attached to the original orchestral version of the symphony and it has stuck.

Ernst Gideon Freiherr von Laudon (c. 1780)

The finale in question is entertaining, full of harmonic twists and delightful effects. It starts off softly, as many of Haydn's finales do, but it does this by limiting itself entirely to the two violin parts. The texture is light and playful as a result and gets us really interested in the events which follow. When the main rondo theme recurs it's treated differently each time, and all up it's a very satisfying end to the piece. [listen]

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

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