Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reading Haydn's 96th

Joseph Haydn's 96th Symphony in D major, written in 1791, was one of his "London" Symphonies - his twelve last and greatest works of their kind, composed for the first of Haydn's two trips to England. It obtained the nickname "Miracle" at an early date because, as the oft-told story goes, a chandelier plunged from the auditorium's ceiling onto several rows of seats just after its first performance. Miraculously, those rows' occupants had left their seats moments earlier in an enthusiastic rush toward the stage to congratulate the composer.

That lives were saved - miraculously, even - is fairly certain; but there is some doubt whether this was the symphony that saved them. Wiki says it was actually the 102nd, which premiered three years later during Haydn's second tour. Such a serious error is hard to believe. Another pundit claims the 96th was played after the miracle, hence the confusion. An equally plausible explanation is that the publisher guessed. Once No. 96 was printed with the title "Miracle," there was no stopping the legend. The merits of the music are the same whether or not it saved lives.

Time for a confession that you will probably find weird: having heard every one of Haydn's authentic symphonies, I have noticed that I find his D major symphonies especially agreeable. This symphony is one of the reasons.

The first movement begins with one of those slow introductions that, in turn, begin with a strong, unison gesture; in this case, a descending broken triad (D-A-F#), first in the major but repeated in the minor. These powerful gestures touch off phrases of sensitive music that, in the context of their time - one might have to immerse oneself in music of that period to appreciate it now - must have been regarded as deeply touching. As this slow passage winds down you repeatedly hear a pattern of four repeated notes. The first theme of the subsequent fast sonata movement begins with this same repeated-note pattern.

In this movement Haydn joins martial dignity, carefree playfulness, and an all-pervading joy that one can't help catching from the music. During the relatively long and rigorous development, the insistent repetition of notes in groups of three and four begins to build up a sense of drama, if not tragedy, that must have sounded very intense in those pre-Beethoven's 5th times. At the climax of the development, Haydn puts in a long pause, like a deep breath to compose himself, then wraps up the section much more calmly; the atmosphere of joy returns in the movement's concluding recap.

The tripartite slow movement begins with a lilting tune like a slow dance, in G major. This develops into something much more forceful and energetic before subsiding to its original lightness. The minor-key second section is more serious, even passionate; then the first section is repeated, complete with its ascending triad (D-G-B-D) opening that one could analyze as an inversion of the notes that opened the first movement. The movement ends with an extended coda based on this first section, including a charming solo for (unless I mistake) the cello.

Movement III is the inevitable Menuetto & Trio. As in the "Oxford" symphony, Haydn makes the most of juxtaposing phrases of constrasting length and mood to create an effect of wit and variety within a form that could all-too-easily fall prey to a tedious sameness. The Trio features the oboe in a sweet little tune that contrasts well with the overall blusteriness of the surrounding Menuetto; and, again, dynamic contrasts and sudden pauses improve a simple tune to the point of being worthy of a great symphony.

The lively finale begins with yet another tune based on broken chords. For quite a few bars this proceeds quite softly, considering the amount of pent-up energy it contains. This energy does eventually break out, starting with a stormy minor-key episode, though even in this instance the whole movement is based on its opening theme. Haydn puts this tune through considerable revolutions, demonstrating many of the remarkable possibilities of orchestral sonority.

From its opening shades of seriousness and tenderness, through moods of joy, wit, and passion, Haydn's 96th is a beautifully crafted symphony that brings extremes (moderated, of course, by classical restraint) into balance. It may not have saved lives at its first performance, but it does, I think, add to the goodness of life today.

IMAGES: Haydn; London's Hanover Square Rooms, where this symphony had its premiere; a gas chandelier.

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

I had not heard that story before. Now I'll always glance a wary eye at the chandaliers in concert halls!