Skip to page content

The first five bold, unharmonized notes of Symphony No. 95 by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) hold the promise both of drama and contrapuntal treatment. Of the latter there is far more than the former, for the extravagantly experienced composer seems not prepared in this work’s first movement to emulate the corresponding movement of his own earlier symphony in C minor, No. 52 of 1774, nor of the C minor Symphony, No. 78, of 1782. In these two earlier works he remains on course temperamentally and maintains the minor key till the end, which he doesn’t do in No. 95. At this point in his charmed maturity was he not willing to go up against such a C minor work as Mozart’s piano concerto (K. 491 of 1786)? We’ll never know the answer to that question, nor, I suppose, should we even presume to ask. But we know that Haydn was quite in awe of Wolfgang Amadeus’ genius, famously telling Mozart père, “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of music.”

Joseph Haydn himself was no boy wonder. Not dandied up in ruffled finery for appearances before the nobility and aristocracy, not petted and admired by them for his childhood prowess at the keyboard, Haydn led a largely uneventful, prosaic life as a youngster. His musical tendencies were recognized, however, and when only six he was taken from Austria to Hamburg by a distant relation, Frankl, a good and practical teacher who was very severe with his young charge. He was taught to play many instruments and to sing well; after just two years he was offered a place as chorister at St. Stephens in Vienna. Although his musical training and general education were attended to there, he learned neither harmony nor composition, so that his early composing efforts were the result of his own instinct.

But he developed and waxed strong musically, rising in 1766 to the post of Kapellmeister to Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. The some 30 years in service to the Esterházys that followed, although restrictive geographically, gave Haydn the opportunity to experiment endlessly with every conceivable musical form. When in 1790 Prince Anton, Nicolaus' successor, dismissed most of the Court musicians while retaining Haydn on the payroll (lucky guy), the composer was more than ready to accept the lucrative offer made by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon to come to London. There he effectively conquered the bustling musical city that had for so long been dominated by, and still worshipped at the shrine of, Handel.

Haydn arrived in the English capital on New Year’s day of 1791, enjoyed unprecedented successes musically, and socially, went back to Vienna in June 1792, and in 1794 returned to London for the second and last time. The Symphony No. 95 in C minor was premiered in April 1791, and although it clearly didn’t detract from the Haydnmania of the period, neither was it as popular as most of the other symphonies eventually composed for London, numbering 12 in all and known as the London, or Salomon, Symphonies.

Perhaps the C minor key of No. 95 was a turn off for the public. At any rate, it just didn’t seem to make the cut. It is the only one of the London dozen in a minor key and the only one without a slow introduction. Obviously Haydn felt that those first five dynamic notes were enough to grab the attention, and indeed they do just that. Then one gets what one expects, namely a pregnant silence followed by a gentle but serious answer, this containing some dotted eighth/sixteenth notes that are to be exploited in the course of the movement. The main motif is developed with great skill on the way to a secondary theme having the kind of gracious charm that is as lovable as 18th century Londoners could ask for. Unfortunately, Haydn soon enough gets caught up by series after series of triplets that don’t strengthen the case of the dramatic thrust of the opening. All of the elements of the opening exposition section are developed at length, and when it’s time for the recapitulation, Haydn wisely begins with the serious answer to the main motif, since those five notes have been so fully exploited in the development section. Then, without further ado, we’re in C major for the charming second theme, and in C major the movement remains through to the brilliant ceremonial close. There are so many wonderful things in this movement, but its opening promise seems self-consciously unfulfilled.

There is nothing but genial charm about the second movement, an E-flat major Andante with three variations. The first variation places the spotlight on a solo cello (a harbinger of the big cello solo in the Trio of the Minuet), the second variation is in E-flat minor, and the third, back in major, has the violins displaying their agility in non-stop quick notes.

If Haydn didn’t hit the full dramatic mark in the first movement, his aim was much better in the taut, C-minor Minuet. There is a wonderful tensile strength and an eye-on-the arrow continuity in the main section, and then that ingratiating cello solo, in C major, in the Trio.

All thought of a C-minor symphony is forsaken in the exhilaration of the spitfire finale in C major. This is the Haydn of irresistible vigor and wit, and also of contrapuntal skill, which he puts on exhibit in the course of the movement using its first five notes as a fugue subject. But fuguing is forgotten for an ending that marshals the strength of the entire orchestral complement to march out in full military splendor. The Londoners should have been tapping their nationalistic feet at this demonstration of rhythmic instrumental brilliance by the extraordinary man from Vienna.

DETAILS:

Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.