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About this Piece

Composed: 1792
Length: c. 22 minutes
Orchestration: flute, two oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo oboe, bassoon, violin, and cello
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 18, 1927, Georg Schnévoigt conducting

Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante dates from his second trip to London. Haydn’s concerts there were unqualified successes, but dark clouds loomed in the form of a rival organization that sought to upstage him with concerts featuring Haydn’s former student Ignaz Pleyel as its star composer. Haydn wrote back to Vienna that “now a bloody harmonious war will commence between master and pupil. The newspapers are all full of it, but it seems to me that there will soon be an armistice, because my reputation is so firmly established. Pleyel behaved so modestly towards me on his arrival that he won my affection again.” Indeed, there was no animosity between Haydn and Pleyel, who behaved like friends, dined together, performed each other’s music, and attended each other’s concerts. 

But Haydn was nonetheless determined not to be upstaged.  He told Georg Griesinger, his first important biographer, that he wrote the famous loud chord in his “Surprise” Symphony not to wake up sleepers, but to “surprise the public with something new, and to debut in a brilliant manner, to prevent my rank from being usurped by Pleyel, my pupil.” Because Pleyel’s symphonies concertantes for multiple soloists were getting rave reviews in the London press, Johann Peter Salomon, the violinist and promoter who had brought Haydn to London, suggested that Haydn write one of his own. Salomon played the violin solo in the first performance on March 9, 1792.

In his Sinfonia Concertante, Haydn out-Pleyeled Pleyel, whose music had a tuneful charm and lightness that made it popular in his day and relegates it to novelty status now. Compared to the Haydn symphonies that premiered in London in March 1792 (the “Surprise” Symphony and No. 98) the Sinfonia is downright dainty. The finale imports a device from opera: a peremptory gesture to open the scene, followed by a recitative (marked “recitativo” in the score) of the sort in which a character would explain the situation and launch the action.

— Howard Posner