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About this Piece

Composed: 1791
strong>Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 8, 1933, Otto Klemperer conducting

When his lengthy employment at the Esterházy court effectively ended in 1790, Joseph Haydn was free to entertain offers from elsewhere. The one that he couldn’t refuse came from Johann Peter Salomon, a German-born violinist who had become a major figure of London’s musical life as impresario, solo performer, and leader of his own orchestra.

Salomon commissioned from Haydn a dozen symphonies, eventually known as the “London Symphonies,” the composer’s last, to be written over a two-year span and presented in the English capital by Salomon and his orchestra. Haydn agreed to Salomon'’s generous financial terms and the two left Vienna for London, a journey that was to take 17 days.

Haydn crossed the English Channel – his first view ever of the ocean – on New Year’s Day 1791, writing of the occasion to his Viennese friend Marianne von Genzinger:

“After attending early mass I boarded ship at 7:30 AM and, thank God!, safe and sound arrived in Dover... I remained on deck during the whole passage, so as to gaze my fill at that mighty monster, the ocean. So long as it was calm, I wasn’t afraid at all, but toward the end, when it grew stronger and stronger, and I saw the monstrous high waves rushing at us, I became a little frightened, and a little indisposed, too. But I overcame it all... Most of the passengers were ill and looked ghostlike, but since I went to London, I didn’t feel the effects of the journey right way, but then I needed... two days to recover. Now, however, I am fresh and well again, and occupied in looking at this endlessly huge city... whose various beauties and marvels quite astonished me.”

Beginning on January 2, 1791, the London papers daily carried stories on how fortunate the city was to have in its midst “the most celebrated HAYDN,” which aristocratic homes he had visited, what he dined on, which music – the choice was amazing – he had heard. ”The present increasing rage for Musick is a contradiction to the character given by Foreigners of John Bull,” noted one among many like-minded journalists of the time. “There are concerts in every part of the town... and even the lower sort of people have their musical clubs, to which they nightly resort.”

The present symphony was composed in London, probably in the late spring of 1791 and first performed as the opening event of the second season of Salomon’s concerts, on February 17, 1792. Salomon led as concertmaster with, after the fashion of the time, Haydn at the harpsichord. The audience loved every minute of it and the Times could not contain its appreciation:

“... such a combination of excellence was contained in every movement, as inspired all the performers as well as the audience with enthusiastic ardor. Novelty of idea, agreeable caprice, and which combined with all Haydn’s sublime and wonted grandeur, have added consequence to the soul and feelings of every individual present.”

The D-major Symphony opens with one of the composer’s characteristic slow, thoughtful introductions which offers – barely discernible even after a few hearings – a veiled version of the lively principal theme of the first movement. After toying with some distant keys, the main theme begins, first as a subtle play of strings, then in the full orchestra followed by a little scale figure in the strings, on which much of the substantial development section is based.

The second movement, Largo cantabile, is an exquisite set of variations announced by four solo strings, whereupon the solo bassoon, which is provided an important function throughout the movement, ushers in the entire string complement. The minor mode, which is prevalent, gives the whole a particularly serious cast, but the mood is hilariously shattered, after a dark dialogue of flutes and violins, by a booming bass note in the bassoon, referred to in genteel quarters as a “raspberry” and in the real world, in which Haydn lived and laughed, as a “fart.”

Movement III, typically of Haydn at this final stage of his career, is a minuet in name only, far removed from the 18th-century ballroom and in its rhythmic shifts and accelerating tempo a precursor of the Beethoven scherzo. Themes of both preceding movements are recalled; while the dashing, trumpets-and-drums finale (“mercurial” is the operative Haydn adjective) brings this delectable, richly witty work to an appropriately festive conclusion.

*Note: The identification accords with the systematic catalog of Haydn’s works assembled by the Dutch musicologist Anthony van Hoboken (1887-1983). Thus, “Hob. I: 93” = the 93rd entry in the first volume of Hoboken’s catalog, which is devoted entirely to the composer’s symphonies.

Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.