Symphony No. 92 in G Major, H. I:92 (“Oxford”)

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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 1791-92 and 1794-95.   Number 92, the “Oxford” is the last one that Haydn composed before this culminating set, and is associated with his receiving an honorary doctorate by the university in 1791, early in the first visit.   One of the conditions for that was that he conduct three concerts, and this work was chosen for one of the concerts; it had been completed in 1789 as one of three commissioned by a French nobleman, and the composer had programmed it in London to great success shortly before.

            By this time in his life, Haydn conventionally began his first movements with a slow introduction, and this one begins warmly, with measured, genial pauses in the major mode before a brief move to the minor.  It doesn’t last long, and the first movement proper begins with a tripping little theme that is not just the first theme, but preponderantly serves as the main theme for the whole movement, and much of the rest of the symphony, as well.  This so-called “mono-thematicism” is a forward-looking procedure for the times—but not untypical of the mature Haydn—and looks ahead into the nineteenth century.  It reflects well on his artistry that he continued to evolve in his personal style, even as he approached old age. A dramatic turn to the minor heralds the beginning of the middle section.  As we may expect, it reveals the composer’s mature skill at “wringing” a variety of treatments out of this main theme—you should be able to spot it, by now—interlarded with contrasting ideas. It’s all the old man’s skill and imagination at its best.

            The slow movement opens right off with a lovely melody in Haydn’s familiar style, varied in its treatment as it repeats. After a bit, the middle section intrudes upon this tranquility in a dramatic turn to the minor with a throbbing rhythm underpinned by the timpani.  It’s rather redolent of a dark moment in an opera buffa, a genre in which the composer was well versed.  But, it turns to a happy mood—with a repeat—and the opening material returns.  It all ends with some teasing, but gentle, pauses that feature the woodwinds.

            By this time in musical history, the third movement is almost invariably a minuet and trio, but the masterful Haydn delivers some surprises, as he had done earlier.  This is decidedly not the delicate, hothouse minuet some may remember, but rather a brisk, energetic romp.  It features the woodwinds and horns, and some rhythmic disjunctions that keep one on one’s toes.

            The last movement is a vivacious scramble, built upon the simplest of a little ascending motive, which you hear right at the beginning.   Quite often during these times, the last movement would be cast in the form of a rondo, but here, Haydn employs a somewhat abbreviated sonata form.  When the second theme appears, it’s clear that it closely resembles the first theme, but upside down.  When the middle section comes, it's an intense exploration in the minor mode, full of counterpoint, replete with sinuous chromatic lines and dramatic pauses.  Both first and second themes receive a bit of “working out.”   A sudden halt and a little suggestion from the solo flute bring us to the recap of the opening, as we careen to the happy ending!

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan