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Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 13, 1969, Sir John Barbirolli conducting.

The years 1775-1784 found Haydn steeped in the performance of operas, some his own, but mostly those of other composers, at the court of Esterháza. During this time, as a consequence, he created little in the genres of piano sonata, string quartet, or symphony, and those works he did create were stylistically disparate. It might be that the dramatic structural devices of opera, and their possible transference to a purely instrumental medium, caused this seeming waywardness in his work. For whatever reason, his previous period, which was marked by continuous development of certain stylistic tendencies, gave way to one of experimentation.

His concentration upon opera and its emphasis on the marriage of musical form to dramatic action was to prove beneficial during the 1780s. Up to this time, Haydn had been trying to free himself from the Baroque, while firmly establishing the pillars of the Classical style. Several of his works of the 1770s demonstrate the polarity between keys that was to become the defining principle of Viennese Classicism, and the change of melodic structure from the regular repetition of a particular rhythmic figure (so characteristic of the Baroque) to the construction of rhythmically diverse, clearly articulated, and asymmetrically balanced musical phrases.

What was missing in his music at this time was the necessary logic of a seamless transition from one musical idea to another, and the articulation of the drama of the inner tensions of conflicting harmonic polarities. Opera taught Haydn to avoid the violence of disrupting and tearing the musical fabric with emotional outbursts for mere effect, and to integrate these distinguishable dramatic events within the frame of symmetrically balanced, closed forms reminiscent of classical comedy and tragedy. The inner tension of individual conflicting musical events, and the resolution of that conflict within the parameter of controlled harmonic polarities, gave to his instrumental music the structure of narrative: dramatic performance outside the context of the theater.

Symphony No. 83 in G minor (“The Hen”) came into being as a result of a commission in 1784 from the board of directors of the Parisian concert society, the Concert de la Loge Olympique. The commission was for six symphonies, which aptly became known as the “Paris” Symphonies (Nos. 82-87). The timing of this commission was perfect for Haydn. In 1779, his contract as Kapellmeister with the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy had been renewed. A new provision of the contract freed him from composing exclusively for his employer, allowing him to accept outside commissions. This new situation allowed Haydn the extravagance of composing for orchestral forces considerably larger than the small band at Esterháza; the orchestra of the Loge Olympique maintained 40 violins and ten basses. Symphony No. 83 utilizes these forces well.

The first movement begins with an orchestral tutti statement of an ascending G-minor motive that is immediately balanced by a descending figure, followed by a dramatic silence. Both of these motives are stated several times, both in sequence and simultaneously. The buffa quality of the second theme contrasts greatly with the passion of the opening section. It is from this theme, played by the first violins, that the symphony received its subtitle “The Hen” (apparently someone during the 19th century felt that this theme evoked a clucking sound, and that the accompanying pattern in the oboe represented a hen scratching). The development reintroduces the storminess of the opening; the movement concludes in a brilliant G major. The second movement is a gentle Andante consisting of two theme groups disrupted by ascending and descending scale passages. A brief development is followed by a restatement of the opening material. The Minuet, perhaps a bit on the ponderous side, is balanced by a light trio for violin doubled by the flute over a transparent accompaniment. The Finale is based on one melodic idea with a jig-like rhythm. The development looks back to the minor-key turbulence of the first movement, but ultimately concludes its vivace romp in G major.

Steven Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is also a lecturer in music theory at California State University, Long Beach.