Symphony No. 60 in C Major, H. I/60 (“Il distratto”)

            Haydn, more than any other, contributed significantly to the development of the symphony over the course of his long career.  He wrote more than one hundred of them, taking advantage of his relative isolation out on the Hungarian plains at the estate of his employer, Prince Esterházy, to experiment and develop the genre.  There was a vigorous artistic environment at Esterháza, with a full schedule of theatre, chamber music, ballet, and large ensemble performances weekly, and Haydn was charged with composing the music for much of the festivities.  Symphony No. 60 first saw light as incidental music for a play, Der Zerstreute, a German version of a comedy originally titled Le distrait (The Absent-minded Man) by the French playwright, Jean-François Régnard.  It was a hilarious play about an old gentleman whose absent-mindedness lands him in series of outlandish and bumptious situations—one pratfall and indignity after another. 

            Haydn is known for his humor, and he takes every opportunity to display it in this music.  He recycled the various pieces for the play into a rather unusual symphony in 1774—it is chockablock with real comedy cast into five, rather than the usual three or four movements common for symphonies of the time.  The first movement probably served as the overture to the play, and the forgetfulness of the play’s leading character is mimicked by the violins as they lose their place continually—an intruding chord constantly setting them right.   The second movement’s colorful changes of mood and theme are often seen as depictions of the play’s vivid characters.   The third movement is the expected minuet, but with a dark middle section that may be a tune from Balkan folk music.  The fourth movement sounds like the usual finale of a Haydn symphony, with several folk-like tunes appearing from time to time.  But, wait—there’s more!   A slow movement that sounds like a lamentation features crazy little fanfares, and an ending that sounds like a descent to the trivial, as the music peters out. 

            The last movement is a tour de force of comedy.  Before it starts, Haydn directs the violins tune their bottom string—normally tuned to G—a step lower to F.   The movement takes off (without using that altered string) and then everything stops as the violins “realize” they’ve got a “bad” low string.  So, they make a big deal out of tuning again to make things right—more example of the play’s absent-mindedness and distractions.   Tuning put right, the movement zips off to a brilliant end.

            Not heard all that much, this work is ample evidence of Haydn’s humor displayed in a much more “in you face” style than scenarios in other of his works.  Of course, it is engendered by the play, and Haydn’s expert sensitivity to its comedic possibilities in music.  You may honor the composer with as much snickering and laughter as seems fit.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan