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Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Symphony no. 60, in C major, ‘Il Distratto’ (1774)
I: Adagio - Allegro di molto
III: Menuetto - Trio
IV: PrestoV: Adagio
VI: Finale: Prestissimo
Without doubt, the defining point of Haydn’s career was his decision to accept the position of Vice Kappellmeister with one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the Austrian empire – the Esterházys. He spent nearly thirty years here (having been promoted to Kappellmeister after the death of his predecessor, Gregor Werner) and it was during this period that Haydn wrote some of his most popular and important works. His original contract stated that nothing he wrote for the court was to be used elsewhere, and so it was that his output grew to such an immense size, as each commission that Haydn accepted had to be for a brand new work. This apparent restriction proved immensely beneficial to Haydn’s development as a composer, for with each new commission came the chance to try something different. As a result, his musical language changed and matured considerably during these thirty years, gradually moving away from the techniques of the high Baroque and galant style to fully-fledged classicism.
The regular series of events at the Esterházy court was rich and varied, and alongside the many musical and theatrical performances given over the course of the year, Prince Nicolaus also invited the celebrated Carl Wahr Troupe for a brief residency every summer from 1772 to 1777, during which they performed plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Haydn was often invited to compose music to accompany these visiting theatrical performances, and it is likely that much of his music from this period was either originally destined for the stage or later adapted for this purpose. His Symphony No 60 in C major began life as incidental music for a performance of the play Der Zerstreute (‘The Absent-Minded Man’), a translation of Le Distrait by Jean François Regnard, or ‘Il Distratto’ in Italian, as Haydn wrote on the manuscript.
A light-hearted farce, with equally comical music to match, the play tells the tale of an absent-minded man called Leandre, whose forgetfulness sees him end up in all kinds of trouble. Both the play and Haydn’s music were a hit with the critics, with one newspaper reporting: ‘The connoisseurs are amazed on the one hand, whilst the rest of the public is simply enchanted. For Haydn knows how to satisfy both. From the most affected pompousness he drops into doggerel, and thus Haydn and Regnard vie with each other to see who can produce the most whimsical absentminded entertainment.’ Evidently pleased with the result, Haydn later turned the music into a six-movement symphony, but its theatrical beginnings left their mark. The symphony is notable not only for breaking the traditional four-movement format but also for its ‘violations’ of traditional symphonic rules, such as unclear recapitulations, disruption of conventional tonal and formal progressions and passages of unconnected melodic content, all of which are a reflection of the absurdity of the play’s plot.
© Jo Kirkbride