Symphony No. 1 in D Minor, Hob I:1

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            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 became known as “classical” musical style, created the most extended series of imaginative innovations and developments in the genre 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, Haydn was charged with composing the music for much of the festivities. Taking advantage of his relative isolation, 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.

            But before that epochal move out to Esterháza, after his ignominious dismissal from the choir school at St. Stephen’s cathedral, the impecunious young Haydn scuffled around the streets of Vienna earning a meager living as a teacher, and freelance violinist and organist.  By about 1757 he finally gained employment in his first full time job in an established household—modest though it was.  His employer, Count Morzin, had a country estate in Lukovice (now in the Czech Republic near the famed beer city of Plzeň) in which he maintained a small, but active, musical establishment, and young Franz Joseph joined it as music director.  The orchestra, as was common, was small, less than a dozen members, and it was for this group that Haydn wrote his first symphonies.  He had a plenitude of models for these works, for there was a thriving activity in their composition in centers in Mannheim, Milan, Dresden, Paris, and of course, Vienna.  Composers such as Sammartini, Gossec, Wagenseil, and members of the Stamic family had already made important contributions when Haydn had entered the lists.

            His early symphonies included many in three movements—the minuet was not yet requisite--light in mood and texture, and written primarily for eight parts: four strings, two oboes and two horns.   Symphony No. 1 is typical in this regard, and—like so many early Austrian classical compositions—shows clear Italianate influences.   The first movement is accordingly simple, but lacking nothing in the vivacity, charm (even the little dramatic pauses) for the mature Haydn is famed.   The sonata form that was almost requisite in the mature classical style is not present here, but a predecessor: a simple two-part form with a little diversion at the beginning of the second part.  The movement starts with a “Mannheim Steamroller,” a single chord prolonged by a zippy ascending arpeggio and a crescendo.   That little trick is also a useful recurrent guide as to where we are in the form of the movement.   The second movement is marked “andante,” and a literal “walking along” it is—with a purposeful stride throughout.   Typical of the times, the horns and oboes lay out of this one.  The finale is a cheerful little romp in the three-to-a-beat time so common in Haydn’s early work.  Like the two preceding movements, it’s in a simple two-part form and doesn’t take long to bring the affair to a sparkling conclusion.  While the erstwhile first of over one hundred symphonies composed in a long artistic life, this little symphony displays early on the high spirits, creativity, penchant for surprise, and humor that characterized Haydn’s oeuvre till the end.