Archive for February, 2006

J. Haydn: London Symphonies – Colin Davis


Haydn: The London Symphonies
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Conductor: Sir Colin Davis
Recorded 1994. Philips 42611

When we think of Classical Music, we think chiefly of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Classical differs from Romantic first by being earlier, but also by being more restrained in form and content. And among these Classical composers, Haydn is the earliest and the most restrained. But if his music lacks perhaps the ready appeal to the sentiments that has the music of later composers, it is still the work of a master craftsman, one who honed his art throughout his life, until achieving widespread recognition and acclaim for the inventiveness and charm of his compositions. Among his last and best works are the London Symphonies, 12 in all, written when he was in his 60s.

The composer
Franz Josef Haydn was born in 1732 in a small village in Austria, the son of a farmer-wheelwright. He early showed musical talent, and at age 8 went to Vienna as a choirboy. When his voice broke at 17, he spent some years of hardship, earning his living as music teacher, accompanist, singer….. and, frequenting musical circles in Vienna, he also began composing. In the 1750s he worked for two aristocratic patrons and then in 1761 was engaged as vice-Kapellmeister at Eisenstadt, Hungary, by Prince Paul Esterházy. Haydn remained with the Esterházy household for 30 years, for both Prince Paul and his successor Prince Nikolaus, who reigned from 1762 to 1790, were passionate music lovers. In 1766 Nikolaus built the palace of Eszterháza (modelled on Versailles) in Hungary, spending the greater part of each year in this isolated home. There, as Kapellmeister, Haydn’s duties were numerous: besides administrative work and caring for the court musicians, he conducted the orchestra, arranged and directed operatic performances, played in chamber music groups, while producing a stream of works in many genres. He was an amazingly prolific composer – 104 Symphonies, 84 string quartets, 20 operas, 12 Masses, and a host of other instrumental music…. over 1000 compositions during his lifetime!

The isolation of the Esterhazy Palace, according to Haydn himself, forced him to become creative, and evidently he devoted himself to his craft – his dedication perhaps helped by a very bad marriage in 1760, to a wife who never respected his talent, did what she could to plague him, and from who he lived separated.

When allowed by his employer-patrons to publish, Haydn’s fame began to spread through Europe. In the 1780s Haydn (50+) became great friends with the young Mozart (in his 20s). They admired each other’s music. Haydn’s six String Quartets, Op. 33, inspired Mozart to write six quartets of his own, which he dedicated to Haydn – while Haydn freely admitted Mozart’s Operas were superior to his own. Their works from this period show the influence each had on the other.

The later years
In 1790 Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy died and his successor dismissed the musicians, though leaving Haydn his salary and title. Haydn left the castle for Vienna, where he accepted an invitation from the empresario J. P. Salomon to visit London. He stayed in England from Jan. 1791 to the middle of 1792, being fêted, lionized, and entertained by royalty. During this visit he composed Symphonies 93 to 98.

On his return to Vienna he bought a house there and accepted Beethoven as a pupil, an uneasy relationship for both men. (Some of Beethoven’s early works sound just like Haydn!). In February 1794 he returned to London, where his visit was, if possible, even more successful than the first. This time he composed Symphonies 99 to 104, which were to be his last. The collection of 12 Symphonies are known as “The London Symphonies”, and they are all on the CD.

From 1796 to 1802 Haydn wrote six settings of the Mass, in 1798 his Oratorio The Creation, and in 1801 another Oratorio, The Seasons. The works of these last years are considered to be Haydn’s finest, when he used his knowledge of writing for instruments and the voice, combining it with his seemingly inexhaustible inventive flair, to produce works of originality, elegance and wit, now restrained, now dramatic. And this all in his 60s! What an inspiration for us seniors! After being honoured with a performance of The Creation on his 76th birthday (with all Vienna present), Haydn died “blissfully and gently” in 1809.

The CD
We will comment just on one of the 12 London Symphonies – number 104, his last. Haydn opens this with dignified, strident chords, adagio. But after a while this slides into a fast, cheerful allegro, in which a little pattern of four notes is reworked and embellished, returning in all sorts of guises – different instruments, different harmonies. From the cascade of notes, you would swear it was Mozart!

Haydn often introduced some feature into his music which could be easily picked up (and commented on) by the non-sophisticated listener: thus we have the “drum-roll” Symphony, the Surprise, with some sudden crashing chords surrounded by tranquil passages (supposedly to wake up listeners who had dined heavily!) the Military (from its heavy use of brass) and so on. Sometimes, too, he put in themes from folk music of the time. But beyond this, Haydn reworked his themes, introduced variations, little surprises and changes of mood. Symphony 104 is a good example of this, particularly rich in its development.

The Second Movement has a calm theme, andante, which is played through quite properly. But after a little minor passage, it suddenly explodes dramatically – then returns to the quiet theme, then explodes again…. and so repeatedly, maintaining a certain suspense until the end.

The Third Movement is a Minuet (three-time), with a strong go-ahead theme; this has as contrast a flowing Trio, but this leads us back to a repeat of the theme, and the movement closes out on a strong note.

The Fourth Movement Spiritoso is indeed that – bouncy, with sudden switches from soft to loud, calm to tense, few instruments to the whole orchestra. The cheerful, rapid pace is kept up and reinforced, leading to a triumphant ending.

There are in fact many recordings of the London Symphonies to choose from, by many leading orchestras and conductors. This one by Colin Davis is considered on the restrained side, but with beautifully clear instrumental detail. For more vigour, listen to Christopher Hogwood with the Academy of Ancient Music.

But we can in all of them appreciate the wonderful spirit and vigour of papa Haydn, the kindly, hard-working, successful and revered man who helped us define what is music when it is Classical.

Good listening!

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