About this Piece
Symphonies No. 6, 7, 8
Lengths: 24 minutes, 21 minutes, and 23 minutes
Orchestration: flute (2 flutes in No. 7), 2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, strings, and continuo
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances: October 11, 1984, Christopher Hogwood conducting (No. 6); February 19, 1999, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (No. 7); March 4, 1999, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (No. 8)
That Haydn wrote more than a hundred symphonies is hardly a secret. That he didn't set out on this gigantic course until he was almost 30 years old is less frequently noted. The earlier years had seen the creation of keyboard sonatas, divertimentos for various instrumental combinations, concertos, church music, a German opera (since lost), and, in 1756, the first string quartets worthy of the designation.
The quartets were written while Haydn was serving his first employer, Carl Joseph von Fürnberg, who had only a small musical establishment at his disposal. The larger forces employed by his subsequent patron, Ferdinand Maximilian Franz, Count Morzin, whose music director Haydn became, facilitated experimentation in all forms, including the symphony. By 1761, however, Morzin's free-spending ways had brought him to the brink of financial ruin and he had to disband his orchestra.
Haydn hardly felt the blow. His reputation was already sufficiently widespread and lofty to gain him a new post immediately, this time with the powerful, phenomenally wealthy Esterházy family. Haydn became their Vice-Kapellmeister, beginning a relationship with the Esterházys that would last for more than three decades, at an initial salary commensurate with that of a first-in-command at a lesser court.
Among the scores he would write in 1761 for his new master, Prince Paul Anton, are the symphonic triptych the composer himself called "Le Matin" (Morning), "Le Midi" (Afternoon), and "Le Soir" (Evening). The three symphonies received their first performances in a single evening in the great hall of the Esterházy Palace in Vienna, not, as is usually reported, at the family's residence in Eisenstadt, 30 miles outside the capital.
Programmatic works of this sort were all the rage during the Baroque, and Haydn takes over many of the procedures of the age then coming to a close, notably in his adaptation of concerto grosso form, that is, a small group of solo instruments pitted against and interwoven with a larger ensemble. But while the Baroque composers tended to employ the Corelli model, with two violins and a cello as the solo contingent, Haydn varied his solo grouping here, adding double-bass in the trios of all three symphonies' minuets and solo flute and solo bassoon in "Le Soir." There is also ample opportunity in all three works for solo display by the Esterházy concertmaster, the redoubtable Luigi Tomasini.
Prince Paul Anton wanted to show off his orchestra to the Viennese aristocracy, and Haydn provided him ideal material for doing so, simultaneously amusing them with programmatic references to the times of day, including the six-bar introduction, a depiction of the rising of the sun, that opens the triptych in "Le Matin," and the sunset thunderstorm that brings it to a close in "Le Soir." And while it may not be specifically evocative of a time of day, the second movement of "Le Midi," a recitative in which the solo violin parodies the hand-wringing agonies of an operatic prima donna, must surely have tickled the sophisticated listeners present at the premiere.
Among the later-Haydn earmarks already encountered in all three symphonies are the use of the fermata, the pause, to lengthen a rest or to point up an odd cadence, heightening the effect of surprise. Then, too, there is the device in "Le Soir" - employed so dramatically decades later in the "London" Symphonies - of creating the first movement's second subject out of its opening theme.
The solo instruments come into their own above all in the sweetly poignant andante of "Le Soir": two violins, cello, and the bassoon. "La Tempesta," the finale to the symphony and to the triptych, is, unlike the drenching experience of Vivaldi's downpour in his Four Seasons or the cataclysm of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, the most jolly, brief, and lightweight of thunderstorms.
- Herbert Glass is the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival and a contributor to periodicals in Europe and the United States.