This concert is to commemorate the bicentenary of the death of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Nowadays one tends to think of Joseph Haydn as a widely-traveled celebrity of artistic and financial independence, treated with admiration and indulgence by the public. In reality, for the greater part of his life he was in the service of the Esterhazy family and worked within a rather limited geographical area east of Vienna, around the border of Austria and Hungary. Haydn accepted the post of Vice-Kapellmeister there in 1761, and became Kapellmeister upon the death of his predecessor Gregorious Werner in 1766. From then on he was solely responsible for all the musical activities at the palace, including opera, sacred music, orchestral and chamber music. He was responsible also for the welfare of the musicians and the high standard of their musical performances. His duties, in today’s terms, included those of a resident composer, conductor, personnel manager, librarian, and curator of instruments.

In spite of these time-consuming tasks, Haydn thrived as a composer at Esterhazy Palace. In his own words to a friend: “My prince was satisfied with all my works; I received approval; as head of an orchestra, I could undertake experiments, could observe that which enhanced an effect and that which weakened it, thus improving, adding to it, taking away from it, taking risks. I was cut off from the world; there was no one in my vicinity to make me unsure of myself or to persecute me; and so I had to become original.”

Haydn’s originality as a composer is amply manifested in the three symphonies in today’s program. They are among the ca. 50 symphonies composed specifically for the orchestra that was in residence at the Esterhazy Palace ca. 1761-1775. Haydn’s orchestra there was unlike the symphony orchestras that we have today. It had only 14 musicians, and consisted of the following instruments: 3 first violins, 3 second violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, 2 oboes, 2 horns, and one bassoon. The few symphonies that called for more instruments were most likely composed for occasions when additional instrumentalists were present at the palace. As a whole, this repertoire does not belong to the present day symphony orchestras, and therefore are works not familiar to the regular orchestral concert audience today.

Symphony No. 23 in G Major, composed in 1764, has a brilliant first movement with a theme of unusual phrase structure. It begins with a nine-measure phrase that is made up of 3+3+3, followed by a contracted four-measure group of 2+2, and ended with a three-measure group of 3×1 and a two-measure group of 2×1. Thus the seemingly expansive feeling of the initial nine-measure phrases is replaced by the anxious feeling of the shrinking lengths of the melodic motives. It is primarily this alternation of odd- and even-numbered measure-groupings throughout the movement that maintains the rhythmic interest of the piece. The Andante is an innocently cheerful movement in C major, into which is unexpectedly interjected with plaintive music, short passages of dense dissonances and touches of minor tonalities. The third movement combines the rhythm of the menuet with the contrapuntal writing of a canon. The imitation is one measure apart in the two-part canon of the menuet, and two measures apart in the three-part canon of the Trio. The whirlwind Finale is a cleverly crafted musical joke that conveys randomness and humor. With the exception of the eight-measure theme, the entire movement is made up of unusual phrase lengths and unexpected harmonic modulations, punctuated by the surprising appearances of chordal exclamations.

Although we do not know when Symphony No. 25 was composed, we do know that it was one of the six works by Haydn published by the Parisian music publisher Chevadière in 1768. The sequence of movements in this work is unusual in that it does not conform to the typical pattern of a three-movement or four-movement symphony of that period; in the former, a slow middle movement instead of a menuet is expected, and in the latter, an independent slow movement is the norm. Here we have a brief introduction of 23 measures that consists merely of the eight- measure theme followed by two variations. The theme itself is a contrapuntal statement for the strings in three-part texture featuring syncopated and descending step-wise motion and joined by the winds in the cadential measures. The Allegro molto is a carefree and light-hearted movement in sonata form, quite a contrast to the introduction. It is interesting that in the development section the listener is reminded briefly of its tenuous relation to the slow introduction by the appearance of syncopations and the descending stepwise figure. The Menuet is of the stately baroque type, without an upbeat. Its exceptional orchestration gives predominance to the winds, which lead throughout the movement. In the Trio section, they form a solo quartet accompanied by the strings. The final Presto is an exuberant movement of rhythmic excitement propelled by the vivacity of the rhythm and anchored by the appearances of the forceful four-note theme.

Symphony No. 44 in E Minor is one of Haydn’s most successful symphonies from the Sturm und Drang period (ca. 1765-1775). Although undocumented, it has been said that Haydn himself gave the nickname “Mourning” to this work and expressed the wish to have the slow movement performed at his own funeral. If that were true, then his desire was not to be remembered in sorrow and despair. This is not a lugubrious elegy in a minor tonality, but an uplifting reminiscence (in E major) of a life that was filled with musical contentment. The listener is consoled and comforted by the serenity and lyricism of the theme, and the vitality and contour of the melody line as it unfolds. Surprising musical marvels are introduced in the preceding Menuetto, a two-part canon in octaves of 60 measures orchestrated for the entire orchestra, with the bass line imitation of the top voice one measure apart in the first 31 measures and two measures apart for the rest of the menuet. The 28-measure Trio section is a surprisingly indulgent excursion in the excessive contrasts of dynamics. The first half goes from pp to p, interrupted by two chords marked ff. The second half goes from forzando and ff to f, and then ends with a phrase marked p but interrupted by a measure of f. The passion and brilliance of this symphony are found in the two outer movements. Both announce with their themes in unison. In the first movement, the theme consists of two statements. The first begins with four forceful and emphatic notes followed by two quiet sighs, and the second is a doleful phrase. The dramatic excitement throughout this movement is maintained by the ingenious development of the motives in this theme. Perhaps the most effective utterance of the initial four-note motive is when it introduces the coda by appearing quietly in canonic imitation. The Presto movement is truly a grand Finale. Here the development of thematic motives is carried even further than in the first movement. The theme, which first appears emphatically and agitatedly in unison, changes its character with each re-appearance: as a melody with smooth harmonic accompaniment or syncopation, or as a voice in a dense contrapuntal setting. Deserving special mention is the sequence of nine ascending steps of the two-measure motive of the theme in the development section, which induces in the listener an incomparable moment of exhilaration (or is it dizziness?) in the traversal of this great symphony.

©2009 John Hsu