Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn (1732–1809) was a musical prodigy whose parents encouraged his talent at an early age, and arranged training away from their rural home, beginning at the age of six. His talent as a singer soon earned him a place in Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral Choir at age seven, where he received a classical as well as musical education.
After his dismissal from the choir, the then-17-year-old went through a period he described as “eight years of misery,” living often hand-to-mouth as a freelance musician. It was during this time that he not only studied musical composition seriously, but also slowly developed a reputation as a serious and versatile musician. By 1759 he had gained his first appointment as a Kapellmeister, or music master to a noble court, for the Austrian aristocrat known from the composer’s notes only as “Count Morzin.”
This appointment only lasted two years, until the Count dissolved the orchestra in a period of financial distress. But in 1761, Haydn was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister to the Esterhazys, the court of a prominent Hungarian noble family, by its scion Prince Paul Anton, then “inherited” a year later by his brother Nikolaus I, Prince Esterhazy, who assumed the title.
Although the title Vice-Kappelmeister suggests a demotion, it was not; the incumbent Kapellmeister, the aging Georg Werner, was unable to perform his duties any longer, and Haydn was, to all intents and purposes, the person in charge of all things musical at the court. He finally became Kappelmeister upon Werner’s death in 1766. Haydn wrote chamber music for the musically-inclined Prince and his friends, as well as choral music, singspiel-style musical drama, and opera. He also taught music to members of the court circle, and was expected to write music for and conduct the court orchestra, a group that included some of the finest musicians in Europe.
It was this task that inspired the first three symphonies he wrote for the Esterhazy court in 1761, Symphonies no. 6, 7, and 8, which are on our program today. This group of symphonies were a bold way to introduce himself. The first of them, No. 6, begins with a description of a sunrise, a symbolic description of his new role. And because the three were written at the same time, with the same purpose – and are utterly different than from any other symphonies written before, by Haydn or anyone else – the nickname Le Matin (Morning) given to No. 6 was extended to the others and No. 7 Le Midi (Noon), and No. 8 Le Soir (Evening), became the “Day Trilogy.”
The three symphonies demonstrated Haydn’s skill as not only as a master composer, but as brilliant manager of people. The members of the court orchestra were paid a bonus for “demonstrating unusual virtuosity”; these symphonies have solos of a brilliant character for every principal player in the orchestra, even the double bass! In gratitude, he earned the honorific “Papa Haydn,” first affectionately bestowed by Esterhazy court musicians, and later by musicians throughout Austria, including his friend and pupil Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The first performances were at events where the Prince was hosting other aristocrats and music lovers, and this display also allowed him to show off the extraordinary quality of the players in “his” orchestra. The music itself was entertaining, but also complex, and infinitely varied in color, showing off the extraordinary compositional skill of the new Vice-Kapellmeister. For a court that had languished under the music of the competent but dull Werner, this must have been very exciting. One can only imagine the response of the first audiences, expecting a symphony to be a simple and straightforward, fast-slow-fast work of about eight to twelve minutes, to these elaborate and brilliant works. Haydn had forever changed what it meant for something to be a “symphony.” Thus began the Classical Era of symphonic music.
Haydn enjoyed a long and prosperous career following his arrival at the Esterhazy court, where he spent 30 years. He wrote a total of 106 symphonies and travelled extensively, including to England where he met and befriended George Frederick Händel and Germany where he taught Beethoven. His legacy as the “Father of the Symphony” influenced composers for generations and he remains one of the most popular Classical composers to this day.
Symphony No. 6 “Le Matin” (Morning)
I. Adagio, Allegro
II. Adagio, Andante, Adagio in G major
III. Menuet e Trio (Trio in D minor)
IV. Finale: Allegro
The symphony begins with a short Adagio introduction, the “sunrise” passage, which rises quickly to a short climax. The Allegro that follows begins with some flashy flute writing, and the ascending string passages show the brilliance that was to become Haydn’s trademark. This movement makes extensive use of the woodwinds in a way that would have been unique in a symphony of that time. The slow second movement, Adagio-Andante-Adagio, has solos for the concertmaster, a fascinating duet between the solo violin and solo cello, and ends with a remarkable varied reiteration of the opening material. The Trio to the Minuet in the third movement has solos for the double bass and bassoon, in the minor, a device the early listeners of this work had certainly never heard before. The Allegro finale of the final movement is dedicated to brilliant displays of individual virtuosity, with solos following one another in quick succession.
Symphony No. 7 “Le Midi” (Mid-Day)
I. Adagio, Allegro
II. Recitativo: Adagio in G major
III. Menuetto and Trio
IV. Finale: Allegro
A dotted rhythm march opens the symphony, suggesting a Baroque Adagio overture; the Allegro that follows quickly on this starts with two solo violins playing brilliant passages in thirds. Soon other instruments join in the fun, and the whole movement is characterized by a driving sense of forward motion and rhythmic élan. The slow second movement is an opera scene with the solo violin “singing” the recitative, while the “aria” that follows takes on the form of duet, trio and quartet, as other instrumental soloists join in the dialogue. The Minuet that follows in the third movement is more ceremonial and “bigger” than in the previous Symphony No. 6, with the trio again featuring solo double bass. The last movement, Allegro, moves rapidly, sometimes bar by bar, between solo and full orchestra passages, giving the music a kaleidoscopic quality.
Symphony No. 8 “Le Soir” (Evening)
I. Allegro molto
II. Andante in C major
III. Menuetto and Trio in C major
IV. La tempesta: Presto
Unlike its predecessors, the final symphony of the Day Trilogy jumps right into the Allegro without an introduction, quoting a melody that would have been familiar to his audience. It was the tune “I didn’t much like tobacco” (an early anti-smoking commercial?), introduced in the 1759 comic opera The Devil to Pay by Glück, that was often played by street musicians of the day. Haydn knew it well, as he himself had been one of those buskers only a few short years earlier. The Andante second movement has the melodic lines almost completely confined to the solo instruments, two violins and a cello, while the rest of the orchestra accompanies the solos. The Minuet and Trio in the third movement again has solos for the bass in the trio. Unusually, the theme of the trio is just a reorchestrated version of the theme of the minuet. The Presto finale movement, La tempesta (“the storm”), evokes rain and thunder, although the storm itself is less menacing than the famous one it foreshadows in Beethoven’s 1808 Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral.” (Perhaps not surprising, as Beethoven studied with Haydn for years.) At the end of his career, Haydn paid homage to this 1761 work by quoting the storm finale extensively in his 1801 oratorio “The Seasons.”