Symphony No. 101 in D Major, H. I:101 (“Clock”)

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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 is 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.   From the very early ones, to the last great “London” symphonies, Haydn’s symphonies have remained central to the orchestra’s repertoire, even as they grew in sophistication and style, right along with the composer’s long life.           

            The culmination of this remarkable achievement, of course, are the twelve, so-called London symphonies, that were the result of commissions that grew out of two visits to the city in 1791-02 and 1794-95.  The set is sometimes called the “Solomon” symphonies, as well, owing to the impresario who made the acclaimed visits possible.  No. 101 is part of the second group of six, and was composed in Vienna during the winter of 1793-94 in preparation for the première in London.  The latter took place in March of 1794 at the famed Hanover Square Rooms to a tumultuous reception by the audience and critical acclaim in the press.   He was clearly enjoying the peak of his professional success up until that time.

            By this time in his life, Haydn conventionally began his first movements with a slow introduction, and this one is in the minor, being neither tragic nor foreboding, but simply solemn and austere in a typically eighteenth-century fashion.  It doesn’t last long, and the movement proper vivaciously launches with the main idea at the fore--a zippy rising scale in the parallel D major.  If you listen closely you’ll notice that this main theme is cast in five measures—so much for the old cliché about the foursquare proportions of the classic era.  Haydn doesn’t take long before the second subject arrives, an even more energetic dancing figure.  It figures prominently in the development and recapitulation, which follow.

            It is the second movement that gives the symphony its moniker, owing to the incessant little accompaniment rhythm that “tick-tocks” away, beginning in the strings and bassoons.  A stormy episode in the minor mode follows, but this section, too, generally continues our familiar rhythm.  It soon passes, and the first tune returns, but this time, the “tick-tocking” is really brought to the fore by the composer’s genius of thinning out the texture, and giving the clock part to the bassoons and a much higher flute.  The “clock” is so pervasive, one almost forgets about the tune, which is quietly going on in the background.   After a pause, the ticking begins again in the second violins, and Haydn begins a series of variants, punctuated vigorously here and there, ending in a big final statement and a quiet, short tag.  The following, requisite minuet is a typical, Haydnesque affair—happy and strongly accented.  The middle section is a bit unusual with its static, repeating harmonies—almost like a hurdy-gurdy--that go on and on, sustaining the melody above, beginning with the solo flute.  After a bit the beginning section reappears, all according to plan, and the minuet is over.

            The last movement, as one would expect, is a scamper full of élan and energy, and has the architecture of a rondo, ever popular in the time.   It consists simply of a main idea, followed by a contrasting section, and then back to the first, followed by yet new ideas, the first idea always coming back reassuringly.  But, Haydn’s mature style is not as predictable as a younger composer’s work might be.   One of the really charming places occurs near the end, where one is looking forward to a return of the main idea, and without warning, a double fugue takes off (later, Beethoven liked to do this, as well).  It burns with intensity, driving ever onward, and suddenly there is the familiar first idea—quickly wrapping up one of the master’s most ingratiating symphonies.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan