Spring Symphonies 60 - Haydn: Symphony No 104 'London'

Haydn's set of London symphonies represent the peak of his commercial success and I dare say some would say the peak of his symphonic output. This is the final symphony of the set and is known as the 'London Symphony' and it is the grandest of all Haydn's works but that is not to say it is any less approachable, vital or filled with humanity. That most genial of master's said his final word in symphonic form in 1795 - 13 years before he died at the age of 77.

Looking back at what I've written about Haydn in his 92nd and 100th symphonies I wonder if I'm a bit to struck on the big public statements by Haydn as opposed to the more intimate works he produced for court life in Esterhazy. But on reflection I decided that the grandest of the London Symphonies demands attention.

This is a jewel amongst many from a composer who's life's work was to be ingenious on a daily basis. There is so much invention in his symphonic output. At every turn there is style and geniality and at every stage he retained an ear for the popular. We scarcely know his operas and songs nowadays and we perhaps should know his piano sonatas better. His string quartets and one of his oratorios are in favour - one can only hope for more familiarity for his trios and a resurgence in interest in the masses and The Seasons.

Haydn wasn't wedded to four movements or slow introductions but the last symphony has both - we might imagine that the audience were pretty wedded to them too. And when this one begins it doesn't creep in but boldly, in two statements, calls to attention. That the following sculpted lines for strings and winds temper the martial mood is clear only after a certain amount of repetition - there's some beautiful writing here. Treated like an operatic prelude it is heartfelt as is the transition to the Allegro proper, but when the music bursts into full flight there's not much music like it. There's too much vigour here to describe it as winsome and too much sophistication to describe it as rustic - though lovers of both gentile and bucolic music will love this. It is everyman music and it goes with a graceful ease. The development section has a subtle urgency about it at first - teeters on the brinks of something quite tense then subsides into delicious melody and harmony. The coda is simplicity itself.

The slow movement is a mixture of modified repeats of a modest though on occasions cheeky theme. It's first repeat features another tell tale bassoon highlight - one wonders if the Kings Theatre orchestra had a particular good bassoonist in there. Some conductors let all hell loose in the middle section and I think it's a question of taste how far this takes one. It’s a brief storm and the depths are never as deep as Beethoven or Mozart might get in the minor. After repeats in military and courtly fashion the movement gets ready for repose only to be upset by a string perturbation. The winds are coy in following section but in the final repeat it flute not bassoon that gilds the melody. It is movement without incident and yet with so much ease it is easy to call it dreamy.

The Minuet is bold and vivacious and the Trio somewhat simpler in style as counterpoint. Both can come off the page quite flat until the enterprising conductor takes a few liberties. They however become delightfully funny with a bit of rubato injected to lingering short phrases. The suddenly it's invoking a village dance where either dancers or musicians or both are hesitant and topple into their first steps. The trio is beautifully transformed in the hands of a conductor like Marc Minkowski to giggly effect. The minuet is all but a scherzo in form and tidies up the rural scene in a trice.

The last movement starts with a pedal note (which is always a good thing for me) and quickly gathers speed and interest with a tune and it's counter. This is sonata form at it's classical best - though even here too Haydn innovates harmonically. It is a contrapuntal playground for both the composer and the listener. There's a dynamism here which you figure is for the grand finale and meant to bring an expectant house to it's feet. That's the showman in Haydn, but there are no tricks of the light hear and just about every instrument plays a part in delivering this (by the standards of it's day) big and long symphony. I won't describe it - it is much better heard than read about.

Haydn conducted this 104th symphony in what we now know as Her Majesty's Theatre, but was then known as the King's Theatre (in the reign of George I). One wonders how the audiences in London's Haymarket thought of this grand finale to Haydn's London residence in 1795. They had heard twelve symphonies written in Vienna and London and the concerts had been sell outs and the reviews in that pleasing way of the 18th Century just marvelled. Haydn had certainly been paid well (£50) for each of the 20 concerts. Salomon the concert impresario must have been rubbing his hands too.

As a body of work the twelve symphonies were a marvellous collection of Haydn's favourite techniques, and his style and humour. I don't think there is anything much like it in the repertoire of such consistently high standard or indeed glorious sunny disposition. It is worth hearing for a urbane craftsmanship that falls on the ear with so little effort. Haydn's mastery is more obvious than when it takes us by surprise but less so because we miss so much in the first dozen hearings.

So if you think you know Haydn listen again - here's Marc Minkowski live in concert showing what a hoot it can be.


Popular Posts