Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) never shied away from pleasing the crowd. Near the end of his life, when he was Europe's preeminent composer, he made two trips to London for seasons of concerts devoted to his music, composing, among other works, 12 new symphonies. The "Military" Symphony was written for the second visit in 1794-95. The big hit of the first visit had been the "Surprise" Symphony, with its unexpected loud drumbeat during a quiet passage in its slow movement. The audience had spontaneously cried for an encore of the movement, and even Haydn's greatest rival in London, the composer and pianist Ignace Pleyel, had complimented him on the idea.
So the pressure was on Haydn to come up with another masterstroke for his return, and the "Military" Symphony was his response. The Symphony, which was originally labeled "Grand Overture with the Militaire Movement," premiered at the Hanover Square Rooms, which could hold an audience of 800, on March 31, 1794. Haydn led the orchestra from the fortepiano, a quieter forerunner of the modern grand piano, and Johann Peter Salomon, the violinist and impresario who had arranged Haydn's two London visits, sat in the concertmaster's seat. In addition to the standard pairs of winds, horns, and trumpets as well as strings and timpani, the orchestra included a battery of "Turkish" percussion (triangle, cymbals, and bass drum), for which there was a great vogue in late-18th-century European music. The Turks had ceased to be a threat to Europe when the Austrians and Poles defeated them outside of Vienna in 1683; a century on, Europeans could view their once-threatening enemies in a different light.
The Symphony opens with an imposing slow introduction; the spirited Allegro that follows (beginning with a solo flute and the oboes) is tautly constructed in Haydn's usual matter. Rather than introducing two sharply contrasted themes in the typical manner of the symphonies of his age, Haydn instead offers a selection of brief, tightly interconnected motives that form the basis of the movement.
Haydn holds his percussion in reserve until the second movement, the "Militaire Movement." The main theme, folk-like in its simplicity and steady in its march rhythm, comes from a duet for two liras (an instrument similar to a hurdy-gurdy) Haydn had penned a few years earlier. A review of the symphony from a London newspaper described the progress of the movement: "It is the advancing to battle; and the march of men, the sounding of the charge, the thundering of the onset, the clash of arms, the groans of the wounded, and what may well be called the hellish roar of war increase to a climax of horrid sublimity! which, if others can conceive, he alone can execute; at least he alone hitherto has affected these wonders." The vivid pictorial quality of the movement was indeed original, at least in the context of the classical symphony (earlier composers had used battle as an inspiration), and it was a coup that secured the "Military" Symphony's place as the most popular among its 100-plus brethren.
The third movement is a minuet, a courtly dance with a stately triple rhythm, the standard for the 18th-century symphony. The movement's outer sections employ the full orchestra, giving them a sense of grandeur and occasion, while the central section relies mostly on the textures of solo winds and gentle, quiet violins, although even here there is a momentary military outburst. The Presto finale rushes by like an unstoppable perpetual motion machine. In a stroke of genius, Haydn brings back his Turkish percussion during the movement's closing moments, creating a sense of balance between the finale and the first two movements and bringing things to a exhilarating conclusion.
- John Mangum is the Philharmonic's Program Designer/Annotator.