Although Haydn never visited Paris, his music, beginning with the earliest symphonies and chamber works in the 1760s, was well known and much performed there. Many of his works were published there without his knowledge and consent, and thus he derived no financial benefits from them. Therefore, when the Comte d’Ogny commissioned Haydn for six symphonies on behalf of Le Concert de la Loge Olympique in 1785, it was a long overdue formal recognition of the composer’s immense popularity and exalted reputation in the French musical world. The high esteem of the Parisians was reflected in the extraordinary offer to Haydn of 25 louis d’or for each of his symphonies, an amount that was five times more than what the Concert offered other composers for a symphony. Haydn’s response to this generous commission was immediate, composing Symphonies Nos. 82-87, now known as the “Paris” Symphonies, during 1785-1786. The numbering of these works given at the time of publication does not represent the chronological order of their creation. Extant dated autographs indicate that Symphonies 83, 85, and 87 were composed in 1785, and Symphonies 82, 84, 86 in 1786. The first performances of these symphonies took place during the 1787-88 series, and according to the Mercure de France in April of 1788, these symphonies (one or more) were played at all the concerts during that season. The reviewer added that from repeated hearings, one admires more and more the works of this great genius, which in each of the pieces succeeded in realizing such rich and varied developments from a single subject. Probably in response to demand, the Parisian music publisher Imbault advertised the sale of these new works in January of the same year.
The three symphonies in this program all call for the same instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings.
The first movement of Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, Allegro spiritoso, begins with a dramatic first theme of three exclamatory phrases, each consisting of four long notes followed by repeated figures in dotted rhythm. The urgency of this initial utterance, which seems to presage the buildup of a movement of great intensity, leads instead to a comical and light-hearted second theme in the relative major. It is this second theme, whose short grace-notes and rhythm are suggestive of the clucking of hen, that later earned the name La Poule for this symphony. The juxtaposition of these two themes in the beginning of the development section emphasizes further their extreme contrast in character. In spite of the extended use of the forceful four-note motive in sequences, the movement ends simply and happily in G major.
The Andante second movement is an intimate, lyrical and expressive movement played mainly by the strings. With the exception of the three transitional phrases that introduce the arrival of new tonalities, where the tranquility of the music is disrupted by loud orchestral outbursts, the dynamic markings throughout the movement are all piano and pianissimo. Other than these surprising moments, the winds join the strings only in two phrases of orchestral sonority: the phrase before the return of the main theme and the final phrase of the movement.
For the last two movements, Haydn abandoned the original tonality of G minor, and ends the symphony with two dance movements in G major. The third movement is a waltz-like Menuet beginning with an upbeat, which suggests a faster tempo than the Baroque menuet. The Trio section features a solo flute playing the melody in octaves with the first violin section. The gigue-like finale, Vivace, is a monothematic movement in sonata form. The highlights of this movement are the fast modulating development section of 20 measures that touches upon seven keys, and the reiterative phrase that contains three dramatic pauses before the dance reaches its brilliant ending.
Symphony No. 85 in B-flat Major is known as La Reine because it was the favorite of the Queen, Marie Antoinette. The first movement opens with a short Adagio introduction that leads to a most unusual Vivace, which is a monothematic movement in sonata form. The seemingly simple theme consists of two halves: the first based on the motive of a soft long expressive note and its resolution to the next harmony, marked cantabile, and the second on a loud and fast ascending scale followed by a broken chord. Although the lively character of the second half of the theme holds sway, the cantabile motives provide the beautiful and touching moments of the movement. Thus, the duality of the theme has within itself the thematic contrast usually provided by a second theme.
The second movement, entitled “Romance,” is a theme and variations movement in E-flat major, based on an old French folk song. Following the theme, played by the strings, the flute appears as soloist in the first variation. In the second variation, the theme is heard in the key of E-flat minor, again played by the strings. Variation three features the flute in a florid obbligato part, and the final variation, the bassoon as soloist. In the jaunty Menuetto that follows, we hear the bassoon again in the Trio section, first in a solo, then along with the flute and oboes in an unusual conversational phrase accompanied by the horns playing a long pedal point in octave.
The final Presto is an unusual movement in the sonata rondo form. Like the first movement, it is also a monothematic movement. Therefore, the subsidiary B and C sections of the rondo are based on the same main thematic material. The light-hearted presto theme of this movement brings this symphony to a spirited end.
The first movement of Symphony No. 87 in A Major, Vivace, is one of rich orchestral sonority. The sole theme of this movement is a forceful one accompanied throughout by a bass line of constant eighth-notes, which gives the music a feeling of relentless rhythmic drive. Soft and expressive moments are provided by the bridge passages that take the theme to new tonalities. The development section, which modulates from A minor to F-sharp minor, incorporates both characteristics. It is brought to a sudden halt by two unexpected measures of silence, then continues surprisingly to the recapitulation section of the movement.
The second movement is a lyrical Adagio in binary form, in which the second half is a repeat of the first. The first half begins in D Major and ends on the dominant key of A major, and the second half vice versa. Each half begins with the theme played by the strings, followed by an obbligato phrase by the flute, and ends with the winds accompanied by the strings. Neither half is repeated. The second is followed by a coda played by the entire orchestra.
By the time of the “Paris” Symphonies, the term Menuet in Haydn’s works no longer denotes the traditional French Baroque menuet of two-measure grouping. Rather, it had become more of a generic term for a dance movement. In this instance, it is essentially a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance in 3/4 time. The rustic character of the dance is enhanced by the contrast with the elegance of the oboe solo in the Trio section.
As with Symphonies Nos. 83 and 85, No. 87 also ends with a lively and brilliant monothematic Finale in sonata form. Along with the first movements of Symphony No. 85 and this symphony, the three works in this program together have five monothematic movements in sonata form. No wonder that the Parisian audience so admired Haydn’s inventiveness, his ability to create so many substantial pieces that are based on single subjects.