Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reading Haydn's 94th

Joseph Haydn's 94th Symphony in G is known, to English-speaking fans, as the "Surprise Symphony." The nickname for it in German is "Paukenschlag," which means a stroke of the drum. Both nicknames are references to the same event in the second movement, when a very slow, soft, lightly-textured theme is suddenly interrupted by a single, very loud chord. Legend has it that Haydn planned this little joke to wake up drowsing members of the audience. Now that everyone knows about it, it is the most-anticipated moment in the symphony, and thus surprises no one. But if that's what it takes to draw attention to a great piece of music, so be it.

Actually, the 94th is probably one of Haydn's most over-played pieces. While you may be hearing it for the first time, many other people have heard it so often that they forget to appreciate what a fine symphony it is. So perhaps these remarks will also refocus their attention on a work of art too excellent to be taken casually. Now and then, when I have (deliberately or otherwise) managed not to hear this symphony for a year or two, going back to it is like catching up with a dear, old friend after a long time out of touch. And what I feel at such times is deep, personal affection.

Like the 98th, Symphony No. 94 opens with a slow introduction. This one, however, is in a major key and unrelated to the thematic material of the fast movement that follows it. It is noble, gentle, and best of all, brief. The sonata opens with a soft statement of what proves to be a very versatile theme; it undergoes a bit of development even in the "exposition" section. Eventually a gentler second theme emerges, but the overall mood is exuberance driven by non-stop energy. The actual "development" section is quite brief, but even more development spills over into the recap (particularly in the extended transition to the second theme).

Movement II is a set of lightly-scored variations on a mincing little theme made up of broken triads and repeated notes. The second variation veers into a minor key. The third and fourth variations are "double variations" - that is, where the theme has a repeat sign, in stead of repeating the same variation material they proceed into further variation. After fourth variation's rather pompous climax, the movement ends with a brief coda.

Movement III is a bouncy, energetic Minuet, complimenting the high spirits of the first movement. The central Trio is a brisk, perky little number that seems related to the motives of the minuet.

Movement IV is another quicksilver sonata with two nicely balanced themes: the first climbing, the second falling. It has a vigorous development section (proportionally longer than the first movement's one) and a seemingly serious coda in which the final chords are interrupted by a last, wry wink from the composer who once declared: "Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully."

IMAGES: E. J. C. Hamman's portrait of Haydn; two views of the music room at Esterhaza where many of Haydn's compositions were first performed. EDIT: Here is Mariss Jansons conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of this symphony. Sorry about the obnoxious sound-artifact, which I believe is due to a sympathetic vibration set off in one of the percussion instruments standing by unused:

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