Symphony No. 1
Composed: c. 1757
Length: c. 13 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Considering that Haydn has been dubbed the “father of the symphony,” one would think we had fairly specific information about his firstborn. But nothing is really known about the first performances of his earliest symphonies. A generation ago, this Symphony in D was thought to have been written in 1759, and as such, probably not the chronological first of his symphonies. There is a soft consensus building now that this work was probably composed around 1757, at the beginning of his tenure as music director for Count Karl Joseph Franz Morzin, and that it is indeed the first of what would ultimately be more than 100 symphonies from Haydn’s pen.
In any case, it was hardly the very first symphony ever written, and its simple scoring and three-movement form follow contemporary models for Haydn. But in its animating spirit and sophisticated development it was already quite characteristic of this most distinctive composer, whose claim to fatherhood for the genre rests not on temporal priority but on elevating it to its position of preeminence among classical Western forms for large instrumental ensembles.
Haydn begins with the sort of crescendo often associated with the orchestra of the elector’s court Mannheim, then widely acknowledged the finest in Europe, although Haydn probably picked up the device from its source, in Italian opera overtures. It generates tremendous energy in just nine bars, slams to a halt, and then Haydn sashays on as if nothing had happened. He plays with dynamics, articulation, syncopation, and hierarchically directed tonality in ways that were both highly personal and in the vanguard of the newly emerging Classical style. (For context, bear in mind that when this piece was probably composed, Bach had been dead only seven years and Handel was still alive.)
The slow movement is a not-so-very slow Andante for the strings alone. The clarity and charm of the movement is Classical and the dynamic and harmonic surprises purely Haydn, but the appoggiaturas, the sweetly contrapuntal intertwining of the violins, the dramatic sequencing, and the gentle pulsing of the bass line remind us that the Baroque era was not forgotten.
For a finale, Haydn gives us a rollicking Presto of the fleet and funny kind that he would become famous for, although here in a binary form like the previous two movements. The phrasing is ambiguous and teasing, the snapping of the violins sassy, and the zestful joy irresistible.
— John Henken