F. Joseph Haydn wrote lots of fine symphonies - 106 of them in fact - but enthusiasts are generally agreed that his finest essays in the field came toward the end of his career, beginning with the six "Paris" symphonies (Nos. 82-87) he wrote in 1785-86 for a French patron and performance in that city, and culminating in the twelve "London" symphonies (Nos. 93-104) written in 1791-95 for Haydn's two triumphant, concertizing trips to England.
Between these two groups are five late masterpieces that are "neither fish nor fowl." Haydn's 92nd Symphony in G major is the last of these late non-Paris/London Symphonies, though it would be more accurate to call it "a little fish and a little fowl." For it was first performed in Paris in 1789; yet it carries the nickname "Oxford Symphony" because Haydn himself conducted it there in 1791 while receiving an honorary doctorate at Oxford University. Whether you think of it as one of his Paris or as one of his London Symphonies, the "Oxford" clearly belongs to Haydn's period of greatest mastery. In a certain, academic sense it might even be regarded as his literal masterpiece, or musical dissertation; though the "father of the symphony" certainly needed no degree from Oxford to certify him as a master of the form.
Movement I opens with a slow introduction (Adagio), beginning with a series of hesitant, repeated notes that open out into a passage of gentle poignancy. The sonata movement that follows is marked "Allegro spiritoso," and spirited it is. This is a monothematic sonata; so, when the music moves to the dominant key (D), instead of a second theme you hear the first theme again, only transposed. The only thing like a contrasting theme is the perky little codetta at the end of the exposition. The rest of the energy and variety of the movement is accomplished through constrasting moods, textures, and keys. Haydn continues to use these same techniques throughout the development, crafting a movement balancing charm and drama, deft touches of humor as well as displays of masculine strength.
Movement II (Adagio) begins and ends with a long, sensitive melody, scored lightly but with warmth. From the structure of the tune one might expect it to be followed by variations; instead, Haydn contrasts it with a middle section full of crisp rhythms, loud statements, and minor-key sternness. The return of the opening section comes as a welcome relief, as if some noisome official has interrupted a peaceful family moment - or perhaps, a tender romantic one - and, after making certain threats and demands, gratefully departed.
Movement III is the expected Menuetto & Trio. After hearing a hundred symphonic minuets by Haydn, one might expect to be oppressed by their sameness and predictability. Amazingly, it is not so. Haydn provides just enough surprises to make the Menuetto sparkle with wit and originality, without making it hard to follow his argument. These surprises include changes of phrase length and accent patterns, plus a moment where the music stalls in mid-phrase, then resumes more softly, like a forgetful man sheepishly trying to recall what he was going to say. The Trio is more heavy-footed than the Menuetto, but it too is livened up by a melody whose accented note is on beat 3, tied across the barline, while the accompaniment stresses beat 1.
Movement IV, "Presto," is a rapid sonata with a witty main theme, played softly at first. In contrast to the first movement theme's essentially falling contour, this theme is characterized by its rising, initial notes, including (very significantly) an accented, chromatic note (D-G-A-B-C-C#-D, where the C# is both longer and on a stronger beat than its neighbors). After some densely figured transitional material in which the same tune turns up in the bass line, Haydn presents a bona fide second theme this time: a falling theme whose repeated, opening notes strike me as being related to the slow intro to Movement I. Frangments of the first theme dominate the codetta. After the whole exposition is repeated, the development of the main theme continues, its little chromatic quirk exploited for all its potential to destabilize the harmony, particularly in a daring fugato passage where that theme seems to come at you from all directions at once.
After this development section's very emphatic end, the recap reviews all the material from the exposition, though with some charming changes not only in harmonic structure but also in instrumentation. I particularly like the way the second theme sounds this last time around, with the flutes accompanied by horns. Haydn also adds a coda which blesses us with even a few more possibilities of the movement's main theme, guaranteeing that the closing chords will find a smile on your face. Would that more doctoral dissertations were this much fun to read!
IMAGES: Haydn; J. P. Salomon, the publisher who arranged Haydn's trips to London; a counterpoint exercise Haydn submitted to Oxford when he received his doctorate. I guess it's a canon that you can turn upside down and sing backwards. Isn't it great when you can do great work and have fun at the same time?
EDIT: In the video below, Nicolas Harnoncourt conducts Concentus Musicus Wien in the first movement of the "Oxford" Symphony.