Symphony No. 94, "Surprise"
In observing that some 29 of Haydn’s 104 symphonies have names affixed to them, one is moved to paraphrase Shakespeare by saying that “a Haydn symphony by no name at all would sound as sweet.” Whether aptly or gratuitously titled, the named works stand on their own very remarkable merit, needing no extra-musical suggestion to enhance, define, justify, or distinguish them.
Perhaps the least well-considered title is “Surprise,” appended by English audiences to the Symphony No. 94 simply because of the single loud chord occurring at the end of the quiet second sentence of the Andante movement. After all, dynamic contrast was a thoroughly established musical element long before Haydn closed a soft string passage with a loud, full orchestra (including timpani) exclamation point. A more appropriate name for the work, if one were really needed, is that adopted by German audiences: mit dem Paukenschlag – with the drum stroke.
For his part, Haydn was not inclined to quarrel with the naming of his work, since the entire Symphony, and particularly the second movement, was the large success he wanted it to be. In fact, his anxiety to please the London public had been stimulated by the presence of his student lgnaz Pleyel, who was in the British capital for a series of concerts in direct competition with those of his illustrious teacher. We know from our vantage point that the older, infinitely more gifted composer had nothing to fear from the facile but modestly endowed Pleyel, destined to be remembered as the founder of a famous piano factory. But in London in 1791, Haydn worked long and hard to present a new Symphony that would please.
Along with Haydn’s musical maturity came widespread celebrity. So it was that in 1791 he was in London for the first time, turning out splendid pieces for the concerts organized by the violinist/impresario Johann Peter Salomon; thus the last dozen of Haydn’s symphonies – even though a few have particular names affixed to them – are known in total either as the London or Salomon Symphonies.
The present Symphony, like all of the Salomon set except No. 95, begins with a slow, atmospheric introduction. It is a brief, patrician prelude having a passing gray cloud to darken the horizon with sudden contrast. (A surprise? Not yet.) The movement proper has a varied cast of characters. The charming and slightly whimsical first theme begins mischievously outside the home key. (Surprise? Not yet.) The second theme is a lilting waltz tune pure and simple, and the third is a warm and ingratiating melody containing distinctive downward leaps. The remainder of the movement unfolds with the distinctly unsurprising sureness that characterized Haydn’s superior craftsmanship.
The Andante theme of the second movement, of nursery tune simplicity, is presented by the strings softly, repeated by them even more softly, and then punctuated by The Chord. (Surprise!) The four ensuing variations on the theme are so seemingly simple they require no description. One cannot, however, fail to mention the amazing coda, where the simple theme in the winds takes on a wonderfully Romantic hue through the provocative and misty harmonies in the strings. (A lovely surprise!)
The Minuet third movement is a true Austrian peasant dance, but with a surprisingly subtle and dignified Trio. The finale is 100-proof Haydn, in turn witty, brilliant, and songful, and filled with those turns, twists, and, yes, supremely logical surprises, that only Haydn’s genius could supply.
— Orrin Howard