Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 3, 1931, Artur Rodzinski conducting
When Haydn’s longtime employer Prince Nicolaus Esterházy died in September 1790, opportunity soon came knocking on the composer’s door – almost literally. Anton Esterházy, Nicolaus’ son and successor, eliminated his father’s extensive musical establishment, freeing Haydn to entertain other offers as Europe’s leading musician. Haydn moved to Vienna, where he quickly found the German-born, London-based violinist/impresario Johann Peter Salomon calling on him with an irresistible proposal: a guarantee of at least £1200 for a season in London that would include an opera and six symphonies from Haydn. By the end of the year Haydn had left Vienna for London, landing in Dover on New Year’s Day, 1791, and arriving in London the following day.
The season that Salomon and Haydn produced was hugely successful in every way. Haydn was astonished and delighted to find himself a celebrity, meeting with the royal family and receiving an honorary doctorate from Oxford. He even heard one of his symphonies performed by an orchestra of 300, and the massed performances of the Handel commemoration at Westminster Abbey inspired the composition of his own oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.
The experience made Haydn happy to accept Salomon’s proposal for a return engagement. The composer returned to London in January 1794, this time to stay for a year and a half. Salomon’s part in the enterprise ceased midway through, but not before he premiered three (of six) new symphonies.
The last of these was No. 101, “The Clock,” a nickname it quickly acquired for obvious reasons. This was first performed March 3, to the rapturous response that Haydn and Salomon had come to expect. The Morning Chronicle enthused: “As usual the most delicious part of the entertainment was a new grand Overture [a symphony in British usage then] by HAYDN; the inexhaustible, the wonderful, the sublime HAYDN! The first two movements were encored; and the character that pervaded the whole composition was heartfelt joy. Every new Overture he writes, we fear, till it is heard, can only repeat himself; and we are every time mistaken.”
It is not hard to understand why this Symphony had such an immediate and positive effect. It is highly dramatic and original music, brilliantly scored and thrillingly virtuosic. Salomon himself was the concertmaster, and he assembled orchestras of about 60 players for this second London season, making for conspicuous sonic impact.
The first movement is indeed as joyful as the Chronicle reported, but it begins in dark mystery, with a chromatically edgy slow introduction in the minor mode. The Presto that explodes from this foreboding anticipation has the leaping 6/8 brio that we expect from a Haydn finale, but with that combination of intellectual balance and teasing oddity, and the tightly-knit motivic detail, that typically animate his openings.
It is the Andante that gives the Symphony its nickname. The initial clockwork ticking comes from bassoons and plucked strings, but as Michael Steinberg observes, “Haydn has a gratifying number of different clocks in his shop, offering ‘tick-tock’ in a happy variety of colors.” The main tune is elegantly charming but at the middle of the movement there is a ferocious passage in G minor, followed by some harmonic jokes, before all ends well in quiet and courtly stability.
The Minuet, with its Handelian trumpets and drums, is a lavish one, the longest Haydn wrote for any of his symphonies and elaborate in scoring and contrapuntal effects. The contrasting Trio section is gently bucolic in the main, but frequently goosed with outbursts recalling the Minuet’s Handelian grandeur and tending to drift blithely into harmonically ruffled waters.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Finale has many first-movement characteristics, launched with almost formal gentility. There is another minor-mode eruption of imposing depth and energy, following which the main tune slides softly back, but this time accompanied by a counter melody in an astonishing double fugue. Haydn rounds it off emphatically with ebullient brilliance.