Spring Symphonies: 10/60 Haydn: Symphony No 100 “Military”

I suspect there isn’t a conductor under the sun who wouldn’t want to conduct this work if they could.  It is a most genial of symphonies from that most genial of men Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809).  A honest man by all accounts, but given to love of money, who work for a patron closeted away in the Esterhazy Court in rural Hungary from 1761 to 1790 and thereafter escaped to London where his concert series organised by Salomon were a roaring success.  What’s singular about Haydn is that in symphonic terms (and in much else besides) he couldn’t write a dud.
The 12 symphonies he wrote for Salomon were diverse but shared an extraordinary sense of smooth, thorough, masterful composition with every now and then a stroke of genius, an astute innovation, a dangerous twinkle in the eye and a sense of exhilaration AND always a warm sense of satisfaction.  Papa Haydn delivers and amazes and never in my experience disappoints.

Symphony No 100 is scored for a typical late 18th Century orchestra 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, assorted percussion (triangle, cymbals, bass drum) and strings.  Nowadays you can find that recordings with huge orchestras and small ones, period instruments and modern ones, classical specialist conductors and generalists.  I’d imagine it would work with a group of ukelele players as long as the have cymbals between their knees.

The form of Symphony No 100 is not earth shattering  - a slow introduction which has room for all sorts go nuance and turns quite dark just before it gives way to the sunniest Allegro movement you could hope for jaunty is the word for it’s progress.  This cheery old man produces spritely spring tunes of glowing demeanour and if you think I’m laying it a bit thick just listen and I challenge you to retain a frown.  One of Haydn’s great virtues is he keeps the music buzzing along and before long your beginning it all over again if your conductor is generous, though many don’t nowadays.  The last bars are positively champagne in musical form.  And we’re just getting warmed up.

The slow movement in this case is a rather stately dance, obtuse at first hearing but it needs to be because on repeat Haydn suddenly throws all that percussion in at once then continues to use these exotic instruments to accent the music.  I imagine several older people had attacks of the vapours at the first stroke of the bass drum.  Its a more harmonious tune that emerges from this temporary distortion of 18th Century norms.  The big thing about Haydn is that on his day he’s the only composer for me who I can regard as truly funny: without words at that.  The exotic percussion were associated with military bands and so the nickname becomes more obvious.  But to ensure no-one misses the gag a trumpet fanfare seals the movement which then behaves itself (almost) to the end.

Haydn’s Minuets and Trio are sublime - they gleam - no other composer achieves such a level of unsugared sweetness.  They are dances which we want to dance to.  The minuet has subtle detail and boundless joie de vivre, the trio is a delicate piece with a contrasting repeated bit of ribaldry.

Those of us who know it, love the finale of this symphony - it is a mark of Haydn that you’d be hard-pressed to pick a favourite finale - but I find this is my most played. It is a Presto movement and is amply supplied with that melodic delight - Haydnesque forms in the “question and answer” style across the different instrumental groups. The moments for soloists and whole orchestra alike are agile and suave and the counterpoint just breathless and adorable.  The music quietens and lifts slightly with a real buzz of excitement: a timpani roll signals the development and a change of key.  The music scampers along.  Instruments inflect, with it should be noted plenty of room for phrasing, and the music darts and flashes like a tank of goldfish. Much brilliance is displayed where can he go from here? The next return to the starting theme is thwarted by quieter moments and the music gathers its self up and starts again. Haydn has shown his hand two movements ago and let’s rip with the most dazzling counterpoint and harmonic daring coupled with delightful fireworks from those glorious percussion. The brilliance is just gleeful - no amount of analysis can do it justice - it just is!

One newspaper at the premiere of The Clock symphony reported: ‘It was HAYDN; what can we, what need we say more?”  

I’ve said too much :-)

Here’s a man (a hero of mine) who knew more about Haydn than most of us do about putting our trousers on, Eugen Jochum in a live recording from 1973 in London where daringly he conducted all 12 London symphonies in four concerts - they were sell outs and those present were still talking about them 30 years later…



Popular Posts