Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reading Haydn's 98th

All right, I finally get down to brass tacks: my first example of "what a symphony does for me." I just re-auditioned Joseph Haydn's 98th Symphony in B-flat, one of the "baker's dozen" from Assignment No. 1. If you have already listened to it, very well; if not, I don't imagine that my remarks will spoil your pleasure.

Haydn was a composer chiefly of the mid- to late eighteenth century; he lived 1732-1809. This is what music historians consider the "classic" period of western fine-art music. The aesthetics of that period prized clear structures, balanced proportions, and (in varying degrees) subtle means of expression. To be sure, Haydn's career spanned such musical fads as the smooth, galante, perhaps boring empfindsamer Stil ("sensitive style") and the troubled and disruptive Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress") movement. This symphony, however, comes from the period of the greatest maturity and artistic excellence, both for Haydn himself and for classicism in general.

It is one of the twelve "London Symphonies" (Nos. 93 ff) rounding out the composer's 104 numbered symphonies. They were written for, and first performed in, two highly successful series of concerts Haydn gave in London, and were soon published to great acclaim. A dozen symphonic masterpieces is an impressive achievement, even compared to Haydn's contemporary and fellow-Austrian, Wolfgang Mozart, who in his much shorter life wrote half as many symphonies, of which only a handful attained a similar level of mastery.

This is not to say their other symphonies weren't excellent, of course. I have heard every one of Haydn's symphonies (including a couple of unnumbered ones that were recently authenticated as his work). In fact, I once spent a whole year on a strict musical diet of Haydn, working my way through a boxed set of his complete symphonic works, and I was rewarded by a sense of being able to listen to these pieces on their own terms, with my head inside the classical period, unclouded by the later Romantic period's expectations of stormy passion and flamboyant effects. Hearing all the Haydn symphonies is a rich, beautiful experience...but for a dabbler on a limited budget, who wants to wet his toes before jumping in, a boxed set of the London Symphonies would be a great investment.

The 98th has no cute nickname, as many symphonies by Haydn and others have (such as the "Surprise" Symphony, which I will discuss next time). The 98th does have the usual four movements: a fast sonata, a slow movement in ternary form, a minuet & trio, and a faster sonata at the end. Nevertheless, it also has some surprises!

Movement I opens with a somber unison statement in the minor key, foreshadowing the opening theme of the sonata movement. Majestic and solemn to the point of being sinister, it lends a sense of seriousness to the whole symphony that is only challenged, but never quite shaken off, by the finale. The sonata itself begins with a good-natured, virile, manly theme in B-flat major, prominently featuring an ascending tonic triad (do-mi-sol). It really has just the one theme, plus a variety of cadential patterns (i.e., endings of musical sentences). The vigorous development section leads to a triumphant, closing recap.

Movement II, in ABA' form, is stately and peaceful, with a lyrical touch and just a hint of longing in its outer "A" sections. The central, "B" section is more stern and energetic. The movement ends with a touching coda, extending the musical ideas of the A section.

Movement III is a big, emphatic dance in triple time. Its main melody is marked by a two-note embellishment that "scoops" up to the notes on many of the stronger beats. This gives the minuet a hint of rustic ruggedness, contrasting with moments of smooth sweetness. The "trio" at the center of the movement is mostly on the sweeter side, with a little fluttering motion in its tune.

Movement IV starts with a vivacious, jig-like tune that has just a hint of a deeper side. Another broken triad, descending this time (sol-mi-do), connects this tune to the rather more serious theme of the first movement. The second theme sounds like something out of a comic-opera overture, followed by triumphant ejaculations leading to a codetta that closes this sonata's exposition. From this point on, the movement is full of surprises! The first surprise is that the development leads off with the second theme, and draws heavily on a solo violin in a rather concerto-like texture. Then, instead of the expected fast-paced wrapping-up, the music broadens to a much slower tempo for a coda of almost chamber-musiclike lightness. When even this seems headed for a predictable conclusion - big, pompous closing chords - the music pauses and resumes in an even slower and lighter manner, in which the harpsichord (usually an all-but-unnoticed part of the background) comes into prominence as nowhere else in Haydn's late symphonies.

IMAGES: Anton Grassi's lead bust of Haydn; the front gates of Esterhaza, the summer hunting lodge of the Esterhazy princes Haydn served for much of his career, located in what is now Hungary; the room at Esterhaza where Haydn composed much of his music. EDIT: Again, I couldn't find a single video of a full movement of this symphony. Why do people bother posting videos of a symphony if they're going to make a break in the middle of each movement?

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