Haydn Symphonies – ‘le Matin,’ ‘le Midi,’ and ‘le Soir’

Symphonie Atlantique presented a splendid programme of three of Joseph Haydn’s early symphonies on 11 October, 2013 at the residence of the French Ambassador in the Hague.

The programme included Haydn’s Symphony no.6 “le Matin,” Symphony no.7 “le Midi,” and Symphony no.8 “le Soir.” These are three of the first pieces Haydn wrote at his post at Eszterháza. Haydn demands virtuosic playing from all voices in the ensemble, displaying each of the talents of the members of his orchestra.

Rebecca Huber, concertmaster

Rachel Stroud, Tomoe Mihara, Yuki Horuichi, violin

Zdenka Prochazkova and David Rabinovici, viola

Eva Lymenstull and Ola Renska, cello

Hen Goldsobel, double bass

Lucía Maestro Jiménez and Mikaela Oberg, flute

Robert de Bree and Dorota Gorlow, oboe

Takako Kunigi, bassoon

Emmanuel Frankenberg and Mateusz Cendlak, horn

Edoardo Valorz, harpsichord

“Monsieur,” the composer replied, “a musician always finds it embarrassing to reply when his answer requires the cooperation of a hundred skillful performers. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven are nothing at all without an orchestra.” Honoré de Balzac, “Gambara” (1837)

Joseph Haydn’s trilogy of symphonies (Nos. 6, 7 and 8, ‘Le Matin’, ‘Le Midi’ and ‘Le Soir’) represent a remarkable example of his ‘uncanny ability to write music that pleased the patron (or group) for whom it was composed and yet was uncompromising in technical, formal and instrumental level of standards’. Written at the behest of his patron Prince Paul II of Esterházy who had a penchant for programmatic music of the Italian baroque, they have been described as an answer to Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni in the classical style. However, it is not the symphonies’ programmatic element but Haydn’s use of his orchestra that is of greatest compositional significance. One of Haydn’s first tasks upon his employment at the Esterházy household was to employ new musicians for the orchestra, which he began to do in 1761, the year of composition of the trilogy of symphonies. By writing symphonies featuring virtuosic solos for a range of different instruments (even including the double bass and bassoon!) in an up-to-date version of the Italian Concerto Grosso, not only was Haydn attempting to curry favour with his employer Prince Paul II, but also with the players of the Esterháza orchestra themselves. Indeed, the extensive violin and cello solos throughout the symphonies were presumably intended to showcase his choice of concert master, the Italian violinist Luigi Tomasini, and the equally famous cellist Joseph Weigl. The orchestration of these symphonies did not serve merely to embellish; rather, the interaction between different instruments, their different timbres and varying roles as soloists and tutti, was the very source of the musical drama.

The first symphony of the trilogy opens with a gorgeous programmatic introduction invoking the sunrise of ‘Le Matin’. The evocation of ‘sunrise’ became a topic in Haydn’s later works, including his so-called ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, Op. 76, No. 4, and the orchestral opening to ‘In splendour bright is rising now the Sun’ from ‘The Creation’. The passages from ‘Le Matin’ and ‘The Creation’ are remarkably similar, comprising a simple rising D major scale beginning in the violins before a gradual textural crescendo as each instrument enters, creating suspensions and dissonances until the sun metaphorically breaks through the clouds into glorious orchestral harmony. The role of orchestration and instrumentation lies at the very heart of these symphonies. Indeed, the Allegro of the first movement begins with a theme for solo flute, which is then answered by the oboes; this is a theme reserved for the woodwind of the orchestra, and it never features in the strings. Haydn uses this idea to comic effect at the recapitulation, which is wittily anticipated by a statement of the theme by solo horn; in hindsight it is so idiomatic it is as though it should have belonged to the horn from the beginning! This is a remarkably forward-looking structural moment, and anticipates a similar moment in the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony No. 3, which also features a ‘wrong-sounding’ anticipation of the recapitulation by the horns. As his student Ferdinand Ries recounted “I was standing next to Beethoven and, believing that he had made a wrong entrance, I said, ‘That damned hornist! Can’t he count? It sounds frightfully wrong.’ I believe I was in danger of getting my ears boxed. Beethoven did not forgive me for a long time.”

Whereas the opening to ‘Le Matin’ is mysterious and ethereal, ‘Le Midi’ opens with a grand ceremonial march featuring dotted rhythms in the style of a French Overture. Indeed, the Allegro which follows has the character of the opening of a Neapolitan Opera, with the opening orchestral tutti setting the scene for the ensuing dialogue between the operatic characters, represented by the ‘voices’ of solo violins, cello and oboes. Throughout this movement, as in other movements of the trilogy, the music is structured through the use of textural contrasts between ripieno and concertante, and the character and timbres idiomatic to the different solo instruments. The violins have virtuosic flourishes in high registers, the cello has singing, lyrical melodies, and the oboes’ solo melody harmonised using mainly minor thirds has a mournful character. In the recapitulation the solo violin dramatically subverts the theme to take on the character of a sighing, lamenting soprano, in an anticipation of what is to come in the second movement: a dramatic Recitative in which the solo violin imitates the human voice. The introduction of an operatic form into purely instrumental music is remarkable in a symphonic context, as is the written-out, lengthy cadenza for solo violin and cello in the second half of the movement.

We are back to the world of the court at the beginning of ‘Le Soir’, which begins with a dance-like gigue. The final movement of Symphony No. 8, ‘La Tempesta’ (‘The Storm’), is the only explicitly programmatic movement throughout all of the symphonies. The storm was a common subject for imitation in the baroque period, as exemplified by pieces such as Vivaldi’s ‘La Tempesta di mare’. The title of the movement would have invoked a set of expectations from the courtiers at Esterháza, who were musical connoisseurs: indeed, as they would have expected, the exposition is full of stormy figurations, rapid scales in the strings, surprising changes of dynamics and textural contrasts. However the notion of audience expectation in this movement is a paradoxical one, in which the element of surprise and the unexpected becomes part of the rhetoric of the ‘storm’ topic; the unexpected is the expectation. Haydn is able to use this to witty effect: for example, in the recapitulation certain elements that previously surprised us are omitted, and dynamic schemes are reversed so that passages which were previously forte are now piano. Right at the end of the recapitulation just as we think everything is going to proceed normally to the end, a solo cello interjects with a passage that was previously given to the solo violin; the much lower, comic register and introduction of a new soloist right at the end of the movement could hardly have failed to amuse the audience at Esterháza.

Programme Notes by Rachel Stroud.