Spring Symphonies: 40/60 - Haydn: Symphony No 92 'Oxford'

There are of course countless symphonies by Haydn I might have chosen for this blog.  They are a constant source of invention and as David Wyn Jones has pointed out - the interaction between Haydn and his audience led over time to some great strides in innovation but founded on the interplay in musical terms between composer and audience.

No 92 is in the same key as No 88 and No 88 is a favourite for nearly everyone who has heard it I imagine - indeed what a cold heart one must have not to raise a smile at the the finale of No 88.  That finale is one of the most joyous and genuinely funny things in music.  But No 92 - nicknamed "Oxford" is not quite so well known and so I chose to write about that rather than it's more illustrious companion.

It was written in the gap between the Paris symphonies and the London symphonies in 1788-89 and commissioned by the splendidly named Comte Claude-François-Marie Rigoley d'Ogny.  In that marvellously sophisticated way Haydn organised his business they were also sold Prince Kraft of Oettingen-Wallerstein.  The nickname arose because at the concert to celebrate his honorary degree from Oxford university in July 1791, No 92 was played.

The symphony begins with a Adagio which tentatively finds its way to a climax and then equally tentatively introduces the main Allegro spiritoso which is indeed spirited and Haydn drives the music with those unexpected harmonic sidesteps which turn the audiences sensibilities every so slightly. The movement has an standard sonata structure but that doesn't really do justice to Haydn's invention or ease.  It combines counterpoint, melodic and orchestration in such a stylish way not only could the music be by no one else, but it is hard to see how even a modern day composer could improve upon it.

The Adagio is one of those song like melodies which Haydn splices with a singe in mind.  It is so gentle and humane and these qualities are so obvious even his music supports the idea of Haydn as the honourable, generous musical patriarch of his time.  It meanders like a river through easy orchestration - balm indeed for listener until as Beethoven was to do in his Fourth Symphony - which I wrote about here - Haydn stacks up the dramatic tension.  Haydn's decent into minor key is unexpected though not as vehement as Beethoven and soon revives to the main melody followed by an extended section for oboes, bassoons and flute to show off their skills.

The Minuet and Trio has a lumpy feel to me - these Haydn Minuets feel exaggerated to me (as a dancer) but I guess at the time (without the benefit of drum tracks) dancers need a bit of a heavy handed guidance to keep their feet in the rhythm.  The Trio casts a delicate spotlight on the bassoon and horn and the Minuet returns in very traditional style.  Haydn plays with there rhythm here but not enough for me to fall about laughing. I often wonder how the movements went down with Haydn's audiences in Paris and London - they were very much expected but I guess mostly as set form material rather than necessarily innovative.  Innovation came with Beethoven and blew this particular connection between dance and music asunder.  Haydn push date boundaries though.

The Presto is a gleeful romp: it has the catchy manner of something you would hum along to yourself first thing in the morning.  It's in sonata form but that really doesn't do it justice.  If the finale of No 88 is humorous, then the finale of No 92 is vivacious and infectious.  There are stacks of witty excursions into syncopation, counterpoint, fugatto passages and false starts and finishes.  It is a delight. And it is as sophisticated as any Mahler symphony in its effect and much simpler on the page.

Haydn was a true master of the musical world - in demand after his year closeted away on the Esterhazy estate, in Paris and London as well as Vienna.  In 1790 Haydn went to London - the journey took two weeks over the Christmas period.  On his way he dropped in to see Beethoven and Mozart had said goodbye to him in Vienna as he left: Haydn was at the centre of things.

Haydn was a composer who was trading as an independent agent, writing for an audience that had a very direct relationship with him, not a patron. His music was a commercial asset and he nurtured commercial exploitation of it.  He was a very modern artist.  He travelled to build his audience and he won hearts and minds and plaudits.  The twelve London symphonies - I covered No 100 here - are a fine example of the combination of art and commerce in classical music. And even now his brand carries the same resonance and value that it did in 1794 when The Morning Chronicle said:

'It was HAYDN; what can we, what need we say more"

Here's Ivor Bolton and the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra show it's done:



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