Symphony No. 85 in B Flat Major, H. I:85 (“La Reine”)

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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, 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 the music-loving princes.   Accordingly, 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.

            By the 1780s his reputation had garnered a generous commission from the Concert de la Loge Olympique, a large private orchestra of a Masonic lodge in Paris.  Paris at that time was the music publication and performance center of Europe, and Haydn’s music was much appreciated.  He jumped at the chance to profit from the commission—he was always a sharp businessman—and composed the six works that are known as the “Paris” symphonies.  Number 85 (1785) was said to be a favorite of Queen Marie Antoinette, hence the nickname.

            Cast in what was by then, the customary four movements, the first movement begins with the characteristic slow introduction of Haydn’s maturity, and then is off to the races with a main theme that consists of a sustained note followed by a descending scale.  Haydn was the master of economy of means, and most of the movement is based upon this simple idea.  The slow movement is a series of variations that “decorate” in an easily grasped manner, a contemporary French ballad, "La gentile et belle Lisette."  Third movements are traditionally dance movements in symphonies, and the usual minuet obtains here.   The finale is chiefly a rondo, which is to say a section with a clear theme that is contrasted with other sections.   The section with the main theme returns frequently—in this case you’ll hear the main theme first played by the bassoon.

            Haydn’s clichéd reputation has been that of old “Papa” Haydn, a bit staid, fond of simple, almost folk-like melodies, and a perhaps anodyne precursor of his dynamic successors.  Nothing could be more false, and this work is a perfect example of his subtle wit, imaginative mastery of melodic development, and unpredictability—to name just a few of his virtues.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan