Full Title: Symphony No. 88 in G major, Hob I:88
Length: 20 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
"I was cut off from the world, there was no one to confuse or torment me, and I was forced to become original," explained Haydn of the circumstances that shaped his ever-fresh voice, and nowhere does his originality shine more than in this symphony. Its history is amusing: apparently Johann Peter Tost, leader of the second violin section in Haydn's orchestra, took the scores of this and another symphony along with six string quartets to Paris in 1788 and parlayed his luck into even better fortune by selling the publisher Sieber not only these but others he falsely claimed as Haydn's. The composer answered the soon-disgruntled publisher with the crisp observation "Thus Herr Tost has swindled you." The swindle is somehow fitting for a symphony whose musical sleight-of-hand is ingenious even for history's most illustrious musical trickster. In Haydn's music, an accompaniment pattern turns out to be a theme; an old theme slyly becomes a new one; a recapitulation turns out to be false; a line disappears into the texture and pops out again unexpectedly; an offbeat pattern abruptly shifts to the downbeat. This symphony abounds in such effects.
After a slow introduction, the first movement moves into a perky Allegro in which Haydn plays with the conventions of sonata form so that every detail seems spontaneous. To mention just two: a second theme that seems to have jumped out of the first and a winsome flute solo that adorns the return of the principal theme. The second movement is a set of variations on a graceful theme - a perfect vehicle for Haydn's resourcefulness. Trumpets and drums make their first appearance here; they would be more predictable sitting out the Largo after playing in the more assertive first movement. In the Minuet, Haydn's rustic roots infuse both the robust theme and the bass drone in the trio. The Finale is a spirited rondo in which the recurrent theme's opening repeated notes are offset rhythmically (on the second beat instead of the more conventional first) and thus feel just slightly out of kilter each time the tune reappears. (Indeed, the number of themes in this symphony that begin on the upbeat and thus achieve a buoyant quality might serve as an illustration of that word's current usage to mean cheerful or optimistic.) A complicated canon in the middle of the movement might seem out of place, but only acts as another wink ("you see, I did have another trick up my sleeve") at the by-now thoroughly delighted listener.
-- Susan Key is a musicologist specializing in 20th-century American music and a co-curator of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Inside/Outside seminar series.