Joseph Haydn

The Paris Symphonies

Despite the insularity of Haydn’s existence at Eszterháza, by the early 1770s his music had spread far and wide across Europe, to places as distant from Austro-Hungary as Spain and England. Parisians in particular took Haydn’s music to their hearts as shown by the large number of local publications of his works, with as many by other composers passed off under his name. As there were no such things as international copyright agreements in those times, Haydn inevitably gained little renumeration from such popularity. Yet he took every opportunity to respond to commissions from abroad, particularly Paris, the most important of which resulted in the six so-called ‘Paris’ symphonies, numbers 82 to 87.

Concert life in Paris during the eighteenth century (and indeed later) was organised by various societies who ran orchestras, staged musical events and even held competitions. The best known of them was the Concert Spirituel, but the most significant in terms of Haydn’s symphonies was the Concert de la Loge Olympique based in the theatre-like surroundings of the Salle de Spectacle de la Société Olympique. Founded in 1769 as the Concert des Amateurs with the Belgian-born composer Franҫois Gossec as its conductor, the Loge Olympique, as it was renamed in 1780, was run by a group of Freemasons. Principal among them was one of the most important late-eighteenth-century Parisian musical patrons, Claude-Franҫois-Marie Rigoley, Comte d’Ogny (1757-1790).

It was at his instigation that in about 1784 the Concert commissioned six symphonies from Haydn (he later also commissioned numbers 90, 91 and 92), though he appears to have enlisted the help of the composer and chef d’orchestre Le Chevalier Joseph-Boulogne de Saint-Georges (incidentally, described by the Haydn scholar H C Robbins Landon as a ‘swashbuckling ladykiller’) to liaise with Haydn (any correspondence from this period is lost).

As so often with Haydn’s symphonies their numbering is at odds with their true chronology. He requested his Viennese publisher Artaria to issue them in the order in which he sent them – 87, 85, 83, 84, 86, 82 – and it appears to have been Artaria’s dogged reordering (presumably for commercial reasons) that has left them in the order we know them today. In their original sequence, the first three date probably from 1785, the second three from the following year.

The six symphonies were first performed to great acclaim during the Olympique’s 1787 season (with the young Cherubini among the violinists) and soon after were repeated at the Concert Spirituel. In January 1788 they were advertised for sale by the Parisian publisher Imbault (Haydn also gave the rights to the works to publishers in Vienna and London):

Ces Symphonies ... ne peuvent manquer d’être recherches avec le plus vif empressement par ceux qui ont eu le bonheur de les entendre, & même par ceux qui ne les connoisent pas. Le nom d’Haydn répond de leur mérite extraordinaire.

[These symphonies ... cannot fail to be eagerly sought by those who have had the good fortune to hear them, and also for those who do not know them. The name of Haydn answers for their extraordinary merit.]

Symphony No. 82 in C major (“The Bear”)

1. Vivace assai
2. Allegretto
3. Menuet
4. Finale: Vivace

Neither of the subtitles attached to the first two symphonies are Haydn’s own and were probably added by admiring Parisians in the early years of their existence. No. 82 gained its nickname of ‘The Bear’ from the opening of its finale, with its heavy, drone-like ostinato bass. But there is an almost animal-like vigour and excitement too to the opening movement, dominated by the aggressive repeated semiquavers of its first subject. The Allegretto bears a resemblance to variation form, but Haydn’s treatment of his theme is characteristically idiosyncratic, with two minor-key ‘B’ sections alluding to the contours of the main theme, but recognisably asserting their own individuality. With the Minuet he favours French grace and grandeur over Germanic rusticity (indeed, in most of these symphonies he uses the French term menuet) and in the trio he courts the reputed esteem of the Olympique’s wind players. This continues in the (definitely rustic) finale, a sonata movement in which the aforementioned ‘bear-like’ ostinato marks each structural moment.

Symphony No. 83 in G minor (“The Hen”)

1. Allegro spiritoso
2. Andante
3. Menuet: Allegretto
4. Finale: Vivace

Haydn rarely returned to the minor key for a symphony alter the emotionally heavily laden works of his Sturm und Drang period in the 1760s and ‘70s, but when he did, as in No. 83, the result is on a par with the equivalent works of Mozart (whose own G minor symphonies date from 1773 and 1788). Though perhaps only Haydn would have counterpointed an earnest G minor opening with the naive humour of his ‘clucking’, major-key second subject, from which the symphony derives its nickname, ‘The Hen’. It is in fact a work in which the major key comes to dominate: the first movement itself is brought to a close in a triumphant G major. The Andante is in E flat major and is a movement full of dramatic dynamic contrasts, while the Minuet is perhaps a little more Germanic than that of No. 82 and the finale is a sprightly G major galop.

Symphony No. 84 in E flat major

1. Largo – Allegro
2. Andante
3. Menuet: Allegretto
4. Finale: Vivace

Symphony No. 84 may not be distinguished by a nickname, but its individuality is no less apparent than in its companions. The expectant Largo introduction and delightfully varied Allegro are followed by a set of variations on a six-eight theme with Haydn again making the most of his wind instruments – towards the end of the Andante they achieve independence from the strings in a brief but effective pizzicato-accompanied passage. A gutsy Minuet and spirited finale complete the work.

Symphony No. 85 in B flat major (“La Reine”)

1. Adagio – Vivace
2. Romance: Allegretto
3. Menuetto: Allegretto
4. Finale: Presto

Such was the success of these works that none other than Marie Antoinette expressed her appreciation, claiming No. 85 to be her favourite, whereupon Imbault added the subtitle ‘La Reine de France’ to the first edition. Haydn had already established the symphony’s place in Parisian hearts by including a French folksong, ‘La gentille jeune Lisette’, as the subject of his slow movement. The last phrase of the decorative flute solo in the second half of the movement has, in the first published score, an instruction for an exclamation of joy – whether this was the publisher simply recording an early audience’s reaction at this point, or was a direction of Haydn’s, is not known.

Preceding this Romance is a Vivace first movement (with slow introduction) boasting a rather understated principal theme underlined by descending scales. The trio of the third movement Minuet reveals a distinctive solo use of the woodwind instruments characteristic of these Parisian works, while the energetic finale is a fine example of Haydn’s sonata-rondo form, where the recurring themes of the rondo are developed and arranged formally in a manner comparable with a symphonic opening movement.

Symphony No. 86 in D major

1. Adagio – Allegro spiritoso
2. Capriccio: Largo
3. Menuetto: Allegretto
4. Finale: Allegro con spirito

Symphony No. 86 is one of the most harmonically adventurous of the set. The Adagio introduction is straightforward enough, but the Allegro’s first main theme only arrives at the tonic key by way of an aside alluding to a more distant tonality, a ploy that gives Haydn plenty of scope for quick modulations in the development section. The slow movement – unusually named Capriccio – continues tendency towards chromaticism, with passages of a poignancy worthy of Mozart.

The Minuet sees Haydn introducing elements of sonata form, particularly the more developmental procedures, into the standard tripartite dance structure. The finale is another characteristically witty rondo.

Symphony No. 87 in A major

1. Vivace
2. Adagio
3. Menuetto
4. Finale: Vivace

Symphony No. 87 was probably the first in this set to be written, though since all six were composed over a relatively brief period of time there is little of significance to mark out one as being more advanced than another. That said, the opening movement of No. 87 (no slow introduction this time) does display greater concision and textural transparency than its more complex neighbours. The Adagio makes much use of solo woodwind (flute, oboe and bassoon) and there is an extended solo for the oboe in the Minuet’s simple trio. A brisk rondo finale rounds off one of Haydn’s sunniest symphonies.

Matthew Rye