The Symphonies of Haydn

The Early Years

It is now generally agreed that Haydn had written several symphonies before he composed what is usually called No. 1 (Hob. I:1).  That work consists of three movements:  Presto in D; Andante in G; and Finale, Presto in D.  Not until his third symphony does Haydn include a minuet.  Two oboes and two horns are added to the strings, but the wind parts show nothing unexpected:  the oboes double the strings from time to time and the horns are restricted to playing fanfare-like figures.  The melodic material is divided between the violins, which are often treated as if the work were a trio sonata, although in many places they play in unison.  The lower strings are bound together almost entirely.  Their function is to provide harmony (the harpsichord continuo is not indicated but possibly would have been used) and, with their reiterated, scrubbing eighth notes, provide a forward-driving rhythm.

The First Esterházy Years:  to 1770

For Haydn, the decade of the 1760s was particularly rich in the production of symphonies (approximately forty).  No other single genre in his output brings the past and the present together more effectively.  The four-movement symphony, opening and concluding with fast movements which enclose an Adagio or Andante as second movement and a Minuet and Trio in the third place, accounts for more than half the total.  The next most common format is the three-movement configuration in which a fast first movement is followed by a slow one, concluding with another fast movement or a Minuet and Trio.

Throughout the decade, he also wrote symphonies in church-sonata form, Slow / Fast / Minuet and Trio / Fast, with all movements in the same key.  Very occasionally, a Minuet and Trio will be used as a second movement, or you will encounter a slow introduction to a fast first movement.

First movements, except for those in the church-sonata symphonies, are invariably brisk, and carry the marking Allegro or Presto or Vivace.  The material is fundamentally different from that which Haydn finds suitable for sonatas or quartets.  Unison passages, the alternation of tonic and dominant harmony, cadential figures, and simple melodic motives all help create a sense of verve and motion in a texture in which musical events are spread very thin, in contrast to the compression, concentration, and pregnant density of the average sonata or quartet.

The structure of the fast first movements is almost invariably tripartite, with exposition, development, and recapitulation clearly defined.  The exposition is usually the longest section, and two-thirds of the first movements have recapitulations somewhat longer than the developments.  Within the broad structural outline, however, the small-scale variations, the exploration of novel relationships between different parts of the melodic material, the variety and the extent of contrast, all these exceed in invention and workmanship anything else in symphonic music at this time.

Haydn's appointment to the Esterházy family engendered the richest response to the symphony genre of the decade.  Symphonies Nos. 6, 7, and 8, which carry the programmatic titles "Le Matin," "Le Midi," and "Le Soir," were written, it is said, at the suggestion of Prince Anton, and in them Haydn united a variety of stylistic influences.  Perhaps the most evident quality of these works is their sonorous richness, which arises not from the use of novel or unexpected instruments, but from utilizing the concerto principle within the symphonic framework.  In some movements the strings are scored as ripieno with  concertino of two violins and cello.  In almost all movements the wind players depart from their customary role of sustaining harmonies to become soloists.  In all three symphonies, the trio of the minuet movement contains a prominent solo part for the double bass recalling Baroque practices in the concerto grosso; yet Haydn, using the standard combination of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and string, creates a modern orchestration, many of the features of which are retained and used by him in his later symphonies.

The Stylistic Break:  1770-79

Haydn's symphonic production in the seventies is only slightly smaller than in the sixties.  The twenty-odd works from this decade tend to be more uniform in structure.  The church-sonata symphony disappears, and its most important feature, the slow first movement, is perpetuated by Haydn as the slow introduction to the first Allegro movement, a practice which reached its peak in the last symphonies.

The pervasive uniformity tends to make Haydn's exceptional procedures, his experiments with form, the more striking.  The so-called "Sturm und Drang" symphonies, Nos. 44 in E minor, 45 in F# minor, and 52 in C minor, are each distinguished by thematic material of unusual potency.

Symphonies from this "Sturm und Drang" period are on a larger scale than the symphonies of the previous decade.  Themes are more broadly laid out, those of the fast movements often beginning with a bold unison proclamation followed immediately by a contrasting idea, with the whole theme then restated.  Development sections which use motives from the themes, become more propulsive and dramatic.  Dramatic also are the unexpected changes from forte to piano, the crescendos and sforzati that are part of this style.  Counterpoint appears, not as a foreign element contrasting with homophonic texture, but as a natural concomitant of the musical ideas.  The harmonic palette is richer than in the early symphonies;  modulations range more widely and the harmonic arches are broader.

The most exceptional symphony is perhaps No. 60 in C of 1774, subtitled "Il distratto" (The Absent-minded Man).  Its based on the music Haydn wrote for a play by Regnard.  It is in six distinct movements, not counting the slow introduction to the first movement, and is built like an ordinary symphony with an extra Adagio and Presto tacked onto the end.

The most individual, the most important, and the most artistically successful of the symphonies of the seventies is No. 45 in F# minor, known as the "Farewell."  It stands as evidence of the way Haydn chose to make a point with his patron -- to allow the musicians to go back to town to see their wives and families after having been at the summer palace for six months.  The final Presto breaks off into an Adagio, in the course of which one group of instruments after another concludes its part and the players get up and leave, until only the first violin is left to play the closing measures.  The "Farewell" Symphony is unusual in several other respects:  the first movement introduces a long new them in the course of the development section -- an experiment which Haydn never repeated;  both the second movement and the final Adagio use the extended harmonic vocabulary characteristic of Haydn's works in this period.  The key of this symphony, F# minor, is exceptional for the 18th century, but such remote tonalities are one of the marks of Haydn's style at this time.  His use of key relationships  in the "Farewell" is also significant.  He departs from the minor mode in the Adagio, going to A major, and in the Minuet to F# major.  Even though the final Presto is in F# minor, the closing Adagio begins in A major and ends in F# major.

The Last Years at Esterháza:  1780-90

Haydn composed approximately twenty symphonies during this decade, by the end of which his most mature style was established.  All of them are four-movement works with a fast first movement, a slow movement, a Minuet and Trio, and a fast Finale.  Increasingly, Haydn's symphonies result from foreign commissions and commitments, and are composed with a specific audience in mind.

From the earlier part of the decade, the 77th Symphony is remarkable in that its fourth movement is a rigorously monothematic sonata form, exemplifying Haydn's tendency to use folksong-like themes in extremely contrasting ways -- with the barest accompaniment, or as a subject for complex imitative or Fuxian counterpoint.

In 1784 Haydn received a commission to write six symphonies from the directors of the "Concert de la Loge Olympique," the largest concert-giving organization in Paris.  In the Symphonies Nos. 82-87, known ever since as the "Paris" Symphonies, one senses a greater depth and breadth of musical substance.  First movements have all the crash and bustle of earlier symphonies, but in addition to the usual chords and arpeggios there is stronger melodic material.  The number of Adagio movements of serious, quasi-religious quality gradually increases, replacing variation movements built on folksongs in Andante tempo or faster.  Minuets show less change, while more Finales are based on popular tunes, rather than those tags and scraps of melody that lend themselves to contrapuntal treatment.

After the Paris Symphonies, there were five more completed by the end of the decade.  Nos. 88 and 89 were written for Johann Tost, who took them to Paris and sold them to a publisher there.  The Symphony No. 88 has always been recognized as one of Haydn's finest.  Perhaps more than any other, it demonstrates the fact that the modern symphony could no longer rely upon stock gestures of unison chords, or rapid scales, or tremolos, or any of the other standard devices from which the symphony had, until now, been constructed.

The three Symphonies Nos. 90-92 were probably commissioned by the Comte d'Ogny, a Parisian aristocrat.  They demonstrate Haydn's most advanced orchestration, particularly in his use of woodwindsNo. 92 was nicknamed "The Oxford" because Haydn chose this work to be played on the occasion of his being awarded an honorary doctorate by the university in that city.

Freedom / London

In September of 1790, Haydn's patron and old friend, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, died.  His son, Paul Anton, the new Prince, had no use for music and dismissed all the musical and theatrical staff.  Haydn had been left a pension in Prince Nikolaus' will and Prince Anton kept him on with no duties and a nominal salary.  Haydn accepted an invitation from the violinist and impresario, Johann Peter Salomon, to come to London to compose and conduct concerts.

With the twelve symphonies composed for his two London visits, Haydn reaches a personal pinnacle, setting a standard of excellence by which every symphony of the late 18th century is measured.  Each visit was the occasion for six new symphonies.
First Performed
D major
London, 1791
February 1792
G major ("Surprise")
London, 1791
March 1792
C minor
London, 1791
D major ("Miracle")
London, 1791
C major
London, 1792
May 1792
B-flat major
London, 1792
March 1792
E-flat major
Austria, 1793
February 1794
G major ("Military")
London, 1794
March 1794
D major ("Clock")
London, 1794
March 1794
B-flat major
London, 1794
February 1795
E-flat ("Drum Roll")
London, 1795
March 1795
D major ("London")
London, 1795
May 1795

The symphonies are all marvels of freshness of inspiration, as rich in details of orchestration and in elaborate contrapuntal devices as they are inventive in structure.

The Symphony No. 102 in B-flat, considered one of the very best, shows some of the qualities shared by all of them.  It resembles the first six in the omission of clarinets in its orchestration.  Of the second group, only Nos. 101 and 102 do not use clarinets.  Eleven of the twelve London Symphonies begin with a slow introduction, each of which serves a different purpose within the compositional process.  There are those like Nos. 94 and 104 where a relationship between Introduction and Allegro is so abstruse as to cause the listener to doubt whether any connection is intended by the composer.  There are those, like No. 97, where a phrase at the opening and closing of the Introduction is almost literally repeated toward the conclusion of the Allegro.  There is the case of No. 103, where the long Introduction recurs towards the close of the first movement and makes its relationship to the material of the whole movement obvious.

In No. 102, a repetition of the opening leads to a modulation development in which the figure stated by the first violins in measure 2 is relayed throughout the orchestral texture.  It is this figure that might be called the musical germ from which the symphony springs.  The working-out of the figure can be followed easily throughout the movement.  The melodies of both Minuet and Trio bear a recognizable relationship to the opening of the symphony.  The slow movement seems to have no particular connection with the first movement.  The last movement, however, contains another instance of Haydn's amazing humor which is both funny and structurally significant to the whole of the work.   It contains a section played fortissimo then repeated piano almost begging the listener to think back to the opening of the symphony to make the connection.

Hailed by the British as "the greatest composer in the world," Haydn was determined to live up to what was expected of him.  The London Symphonies are consequently the crown of his achievements.  Everything he had learned in forty years of experience went into them.  While there are no radical departures from his previous works, all the elements are brought together on a grander scale, with more brilliant orchestration, more daring conception of harmony and key relationships, and an intensified rhythmic drive.

His orchestrations include trumpets, independent of the horns, and cellos, independent of the basses.  Solo strings are sometimes featured against the full orchestra.  Woodwinds are treated even more independently than before.

Novelties in the London Symphonies demonstrate Haydn's grasp of the musical taste of London at the time -- the "Surprise" crash in the second movement of No. 94; the trumpet fanfare and use of "turkish" instruments (bass drum, cymbals, triangle) in the "Military" Symphony No. 100; the "ticking" accompaniment in the Andante of No. 101 (The Clock); and the use of folksong melodies in Nos. 103 and 104.