Haydn composed 104 symphonies, and participated in the consolidation of forms that define the genre. The first movement follows dramatic three-part arrangement, the musical equivalent of a journey of discovery or enlightenment. This is usually followed by a mediational slow movement in two or three sections, then a tripartite dance-based movement with a lighter instrumental texture than the first two and redolent of the dance suites that gave rise to the symphony in the first place. The final movement can assume several forms, with theme-and-variations and the rondo being Haydn’s personal favorites.
These forms all predate Haydn’s time except for the first. Sonata form, the nub and essence of the first movements of his symphonies, was an invention of the 18th century. Haydn oversaw the consolidation of this structure and experimented with it, no sooner establishing the rules of the game than breaking them. In 1788, he received a commission from the French nobleman Comte d’Ogny for three symphonies, including his 90th, which stands out from its peers in terms of the thickness of the orchestral writing and the complexity of the counterpoint, the consonant interplay of different melodic strands. The mood is set by the introduction, which moves from a unison declaration of the home key of C major to a singing motive to the festive utterance that serves as the mantra of the body of the movement.
The slow movement maintains an air of noble grace, with the exception of a couple of odd twists: a strange change in key from C to F minor and an abrupt ending that underscores Haydn’s penchant for concision (as opposed to Mozart’s effusiveness). Since the symphony was written for a Frenchman, its third movement is cast in the shape of an antique French dance, a minuet galante, suitable, in the imagination of Haydn’s distinguished biographer H. C. Robbins-Landon, for a “glittering ball at the Château de Versailles … the artificial, brilliant, and rather heartless world of Louis XVI, constructing elaborate locks, and Marie Antoinette, watching her cows being milked at the model farm behind the Petit Trianon, while France was in the grip of starvation.” The movement maintains this atmosphere through to the middle section, which features a mournful oboe solo that is recognized as one of the most beautiful inventions in Haydn’s long career.
The finale integrates the moods of the first and third movements and, perhaps fittingly, cannot quite decide whether or not it is a sonata form or a rondo. Haydn was by 1788 a master manipulator of audience expectations. If the third movement of the symphony suggests an homage to the 17th-century milieu that gave birth to the symphony, the fourth parodies its 18th-century conventions.
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Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was a self-made man, and the story of his career reads like an inspirational novel. He was born to poor parents in Lower Austria, his father eking out the barest of livings as a wheel maker. Local church authorities noticed that the boy had an excellent singing voice, which allowed him to be packed off to Vienna, where Haydn sang and studied music at St. Stephen’s Cathedral. He sang the soprano parts in masses until he entered puberty (at age 17!), after which he was shown the door and left to fend for himself by taking on any musical job that came his way. In 1761, his hardscrabble existence as a musical arranger and copyist came to an end. He obtained the position of leader of the orchestra and in-house composer at the court of Prince Esterházy, a Hungarian who owned much of what is now southeastern Vienna.