Monday, April 9, 2012

Franz Josef Haydn: Symphonies 94 and 100

Born in 1732 to a wheelwright and a cook in a small hamlet in Austria near the Hungary border, Franz Josef Haydn grew to be a towering figure in 18th-century music, known as a key developer of both the modern symphony and string quartet.  He also was highly influential in the popularity of piano trees and the sonata form of composition.

Haydn struggled to establish himself as an independent musician and then found work as a music director (or Kapellmeister) for a nobleman before taking the same type of position for the Esterhazy family.  For three decades, until about 1790, he worked for the family, who were avid music lovers who gave Haydn access to the material and personnel he needed to being a prolific and varied composing career.

Trips to London in the first half of the 1790s brought Haydn fame and money.  Two of the most famous of his 104 symphonies (though, at about 20-25 minutes each, they were far shorter than the gargantuan efforts of later symphonic composers like Bruckner or Mahler, which could go on for 80 minutes or so) were written in England and are featured in an excellently-recorded and packaged CD from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded in 1994 and released six years later.

Haydn's remaining fifteen years were spent in Vienna and, though he retained his music director position with the Esterhazy's, though on a part-time basis, he continued to work independently, composing some well-regarded oratorios, a trumpet concerto, and his final string quartets.  By 1802, however, his health was failing and he had to give up composition.  He died in May 1809, just as Napoleon was invading Vienna, at age 77, and he stands with his good friend Mozart as a giant of his era and a major influence on his student, Beethoven.

The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performances of the two symphonies, commonly referred to as the "Surprise" (94) and "Military" (100) are very nicely done and melodies known the world over abound in these two works.  In the "Surprise," composed and presented in 1792 during his first London sojourn, there is not only the famed melodic statement in the first movement, but the name comes from a point in the second movement in which a quietly-played series of variations on a melodic theme with piano is suddenly interrupted by a powerful blast by the orchestra before returning to its placid variations.  While it is said that Haydn did this to stir sleeping noble audiences during a quiet passage, he claimed otherwise, saying he was looking for something unusual to mark his British debut.  In any event, the novelty became renowned, even though the melodic beauty and rhythmic variations of the piece are exceptional.

The Military, so named because of the second movement's use of trumpet fanfares and percussive power, was an even greater success when it premiered in England two years after the "Surprise."  A gorgeous melody marks the first movement, even though the war-like bombast of the second garnered much attention. A folk-like theme in the finale has also been a major mainstay of the classical recordings and concert performances before more military-style percussion brings the piece to a powerful, unforgettable end.  This symphony also marked an early use of timpani (or kettle drums) as a solo device, in both the second movement and the finale.

Haydn may not be as famous or highly-regarded as his compatriot, Mozart, but he had a long, brilliant, and highly productive career, including many concertos, masses, operas, piano trios, string quartets and solo piano pieces.  Funnily enough, this CD was purchased at a Pic 'n Save along with others in the same series that will be highlighted here, but the performances are excellent and the sound quality is high.

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