Symphony No. 94 in G Major, H. I:94 ("Surprise")

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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.  Throughout his career, 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 that city in 1791-92 and 1794-95.  The London audiences adored Haydn, and he poured an astonishing innovative and original creativity into these mature works.  Symphony No. 94 is from the six stemming from the first visit, and, of course, bears the familiar nickname, “Surprise,” although German-speaking lands prefer “mit dem Paukenschlag”  (with the drumbeat).  The great English scholar, Tovey, waspishly deemed the ‘surprise’ of the loud timpani-dominated chord in the otherwise soft second movement as “ . . . the most unimportant feature in all Haydn’s mature works.”  And, of course, so it is.  But, Haydn’s symphonies have always been at the mercy of music lovers who, apparently despairing of remembering opus numbers and the lot, annoyingly give monikers to them such as “The Bear,” “The Hen,” “The Clock,” and “The Miracle.”

            So forget the surprise—no one today is either surprised or much amused at the loud chord, so let’s move on.  Typical of Haydn’s mature symphonies, No. 94 opens with a slow introduction, here a warm and happy exchange between the woodwinds and strings.  But, typically, too, there are some ominous moments before the scampering, rollicking allegro takes off.  What may not be apparent to all, however, is the typical of imagination of the “old man:” The dancing main theme opens, not on the usual tonic, or home key, but in a relatively distant sonority.  Not long thereafter the expected second idea (in the “right” key) appears and ups the ante in spirit and verve, with its displaced accent—for all the world, real dance music.  This is a movement of real substance, and the composer works through his material thoroughly.  Upon the return of the main ideas in the recapitulation, Haydn doesn’t finish perfunctorily, but indulges in a substantial coda.  He really wrings it out—a wont so typical of Beethoven.  And, it does smack strongly of Beethoven, if you let your imagination wander.

            So, on to the “surprise.”  This famous movement is built around a theme with four variations.  The theme, of course, is the clichéd “Papa Haydn’s dead and gone . . .” tune—about as simple as you could wish.  But, of course, great chefs serve the most imaginative meals from the simplest ingredients, and Haydn knew the creative possibilities in this little “waddling” theme.  Generally, it’s easy to keep track of the tune, as Haydn deftly weaves filigree and color around it in the ensuing variations.  Key shifts and major/minor juxtapositions keep everything interesting.   Toward the end, one variation opens with a “clucking” oboe—perfect for our “waddling” chicken of a theme (Tovey, again).

            In this era, the third movement is generally the obligatory minuet and trio, but at the hands of a master, it’s not a perfunctory movement, at all.  By this time in his life, Haydn had written countless minuets, but he never let the simple form get stale on him.  This example leaves well behind the delicate, perfume-scented dance of earlier times, and is a rather heavy, stomping affair that evokes peasant waltzes rather than the powdered wig set.  The scherzos of Beethoven seem right over the horizon.  There’s always a middle section for contrast in these movements, and this one eschews the “stomping” for a light, flowing melody.  Notice that here Haydn frequently doubles the melody in the first violins with the bassoon, not all that common, and testament to his skill at orchestra color.

            The last movement is in the form of a sonata rondo, a favorite of the time for last movements, and perfect for the effervescent cheer of this dash to the end.  A rondo is simply the alternation of a main idea with some others—in this case adding a little of a development section from the sonata idea.  So, right off, you’ll hear two distinct ideas, the second a bit more flowing and gentle.   These two ideas keep coming back, after a little diversion (a kind of development) near the middle, which sounds quite different—jumping around keys and so forth.  The two ideas round off the ending—with a great accent from the timpani—and the delightful topper is over.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan