Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony No 104 ‘The London’ (1795)
Adagio - Allegro
Menuet: Allegro - Trio - Allegro
Haydn’s first and last symphonies are in the same key – D major – and contrasting the works highlights his astounding achievement. No 1 is an aristocratic diversion for small orchestra lasting little more than ten minutes, performed for a handful of guests in a palace. No 104 is a tour de force, 25 minutes of serious music written for a discriminating, large audience in a public concert hall - so requiring considerably more players. It is clear too that the public event – in this case Haydn’s last London concert - was much more lucrative than the private patronage. Haydn made enough from the performance of this symphony to more than triple the size of his entire savings after a long career in aristocratic service,
His last London concert demanded of Haydn a symphony of unsurpassed splendour, concentration and invention. From the first bar to the last there is a sense of intense and thorough musical thought. He never squanders notes and disdained composers who were spendthrift with ideas:
“Once I had seized upon an idea, my whole endeavour was to develop and sustain it in keeping with the rules of art. In this way I tried to keep going, and this is where so many of our new composers fall down. They string out one little piece after another, they break off when they have hardly begun, and nothing remains in the heart when one has listened to it.”
Haydn managed ‘to keep going’ here by deriving pretty well all the germinal ideas of all four movements from the quiet, unassuming opening melody. The Andante and Finale vary the falling opening phrase, while the Menuet opens with an echo of the second, rising motif. Tying everything together in this way could, in the wrong, uninspired hands, sound like a terribly arid, possibly academic exercise; but as with so many things, this is a case of ‘not what you do but how you do it’: Haydn’s thought is too beguiling to fall into that trap. Hearing this symphony can be like eavesdropping on a brilliant mind as it tosses ideas around.
The influence of Mozart is felt in the opening bars. The stark unison and growling timpani rolls seem to share something of the demonic monumentality of Don Giovanni. The energy and drive of the main body of the movement is wonderfully contrasted with the serenity of the slow movement. Beware though: as in other London Symphonies, Haydn explores an expansive and disparate landscape in his set of variations before coming to rest in leisurely fashion. The Menuet and Trio is a bucolic and good-natured moment of light relief before plunging into the melee of the Finale, based on a Croatian folk-tune from which Haydn creates a dazzling race to the finish.
© Svend Brown
Robert Levin presents an illustrated lecture-recital about Salomon's arrangements of Haydn's London' Symphonies.
Among his many talents, Robert Levin is a fascinating speaker. Here he explores the chamber music versions of Haydn’s London symphonies, and includes a full performance of Symphony No 104 in its lilliputian version. Why were these arrangements made? How are they different from the original symphonies? How and where might they have been performed? Insights into Haydn’s social and musical world will abound.