Symphony No. 59 in A Major, H. I:59 (“Fire Symphony”)

            The symphony has been the major genre for orchestra since the eighteenth century.   While its viability seemed questionable as the twentieth century waned, it still has its adherents among contemporary composers, and will probably survive, though not with the same universality and vitality as before.  As one can well imagine, from its roots in the early eighteenth-century opera overture to the extended and monumental works of late Romanticism, such a long gestation period, growth, and maturity would produce many “parents.”   Haydn has popularly been known as the “father” of the symphony, but, of course, no one is.  It must be said, though, that his contribution, at a critical time in its development was the most significant of anyone’s.   He, who was responsible more than any other for what is known as “classical” musical style, exerted the most extended series of imaginative innovations and developments to the symphony as it reached early maturity under the “big three,” Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

            Haydn had the good fortune as a young man to secure an appointment to the court of the wealthy Esterházy family not far from Vienna out on the Hungarian plains.  There, he was charged with oversight of a daunting variety of musical activities at the extensive estate of a succession of music-loving princes.  In the midst of a vigorous artistic environment at Esterháza, with a full schedule of sacred, theatre, chamber music, ballet, and large ensemble performances weekly, and Haydn was charged with composing the music for much of the festivities. Taking advantage of his relative isolation out on the Hungarian plains, he had decades of opportunities to develop his style and grow his musical reputation from total obscurity to worldwide fame as Europe’s greatest and most respected composer.  One of the happy results was the creation of over 100 symphonies that collectively illustrate the evolution of the genre.

            The characterization, “Fire,” actually has little to do with the inherent nature of Symphony No. 59, but rather stems from the use of parts of it as incidental music to a play by Gustav Grossman, entitled, The Conflagration.  Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, as a committed patron of the arts, supported a thriving little theatrical program at the place, and the whole artistic crew worked together, Haydn often providing supporting music, as in this A major symphony which had been composed a few years earlier before its use in the theatre.

            The numbering of Haydn’s symphonies, like that of some other composers, is not exactly chronologically consistent.  Scholars now generally believe that No. 59 was composed around 1768-69, thus from the time of the symphonies now numbered in the late thirties—so it’s a relatively early work.   This was an important period for Haydn as a composer as he constantly worked to develop the genre of the symphony and give it more significance.   Remember, the symphony had started as a short, modest little instrumental piece, not at all resembling the great, weighty compositions that came later in the nineteenth century.  It may bear some relevance that the so-called “Sturm und Drang” style that briefly characterized Haydn’s works in the early 1770s (and Mozart, too!)  shows up a few years earlier in this symphony.  Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) was a literary movement in Germany during the 1770s characterized by strong, even exaggerated emotions.  Many scholars see some of these characteristics in some of Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies of the time, but the direct connection between the literary movement and musical composition is yet to be clearly established.   What one can hear in so-called Sturm und Drang music are minor keys—some in unusual, distant keys--vigorous themes; dramatic pauses and melodic leaps; and exaggerated dynamics, to list a few.

            Well, whether or not Symphony No. 59 is one of these or not is up to question—it is in a major key, after all.  Nevertheless, one can certainly hear the drama and energy in the work.  Maybe it’s just an example of an early, but happy Sturm und Drang symphony.   Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter, for it's a charming, bustling early symphony that stands on its own merits, regardless of the historicizing.   The first movement jumps right in with this dynamic model, with a “jumpy” main theme, accompanied by strong, separated accents, driven along by the rapidly repeated notes underneath—it almost seems a little furtive.  The tranquil ending is a bit of a surprise for such an enterprise in energy, and that’s part of Haydn’s lifelong creative persona.  Usually, in these early times of the symphony we get a slow movement followed by a graceful minuet, but here, Haydn, as usual, has other ideas and regales us with two minuets, couching the slow movement in the guise of a rather somber minuet in the parallel key of A minor.  Here, the tense atmosphere is continued with a kind of “stalking” footsteps punctuated occasionally by outburst of chromatic lines and dark brass punctuations.   But, the land of sunshine of the traditional minuet finally opens up the third movement (second minuet), and a vigorous—but not fast—affair it is.  But even here, the familiar sinuous minor chromaticism sneaks in for a bit in the contrasting section.  At this stage in the development of the symphony the last movement has yet to take on the gravitas of the future, and it is usual to wrap up the whole affair with a lightweight scamper to the end.  And this one is a bucolic affair, begun by French horns on the “hunt,” aided by the oboes, before the bustling strings take it off.  It doesn’t take long, and this delightful example of a master composer who is beginning to show his genius is over.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan