Symphony No. 103 in Eb Major, H. 1/103 (“Drum Roll”)

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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. 103 is part of the second group of six, and was composed in Vienna during the winter of 1794-95 in preparation for the première in London.  The latter took place in March of 1795 at the King’s Theatre, to a tumultuous reception by the audience and critical acclaim in the press.   He was clearly enjoying the peak of his professional success.

            The first performance was given by a large orchestra of about sixty players, preferred by Haydn and Mozart if available—contrary to today’s mistaken belief that small orchestras were always de rigueur.   The symphony is typical of Haydn’s late symphonies:  four movements in the usual forms and scored for full complement of winds, strings, and timpani.  It takes it moniker from the famous unaccompanied timpani roll that opens it.

            In today’s hyper world of the senses Haydn’s creative eccentricities and well-known sly sense of humor almost seems impossibly subtle.  But they must be comprehended in the context of the times—a perspective almost lost to much of today’s generation.  In the first movement the unaccompanied timpani roll sets up a sense of dark foreboding that the composer heightens with the following passage in the low strings—the first four notes of which parrot the famed Latin chant for the dead. The metre is ambiguous, enhancing the mystery, but the mood doesn’t last very long—ending with some ominous accents on the weak beat (you’ll hear the idea again).  The composer has set us up again, and a cheerful, boisterous theme announces the following Allegro con spiritu.  Haydn’s material that leads us through the important transition to the second theme is not perfunctory, but has its own attractive significance, replete with dynamic, unison scales.  When the so-called second theme arrives, it’s easy to spot, featuring the solo oboe in a decidedly waltz-like guise.

            The development is lucid example of the genius of the mature Haydn in maintaining a limited number of ideas, but expanded and varied in a remarkable display of imaginative variants.  The parade of ideas seems constantly new, but yet, vaguely familiar.  Amidst the melodic gyrations we also hear a panoply of tonal areas, including the remarkable Db  section.  Some coy, soft dramatic pauses take us to the recap--conventionally lucid, and a fresh return to clarity.  The brief coda is introduced, as at the opening, by the ominous drum roll and threatening bass instruments, but is considerably shortened, here, and interrupted by the “laughter” of the high spirited, exultant final Allegro.

            The following andante is a lovely example of Haydn’s favorite form, the double variation.  It sounds complicated, but isn’t, consisting merely of a theme with two variations and a second, related idea with its two variations.  The two themes, themselves, almost seem like variations of each other, but maintain their identity here by the first one being in a minor key, and the second in the parallel major key. You’ll hear the first theme with a variation, then the second one with its variation. Haydn then does another variation on each theme. Easy to follow, easy to enjoy.  It’s an expansive movement, with an interesting coda.

            The following minuet is certainly not a clichéd example of the elegant eighteenth-century ballroom dance. Rather, it is a somewhat rustic affair that features the accented “Scotch Snap” on the downbeat.  In fact, it is more or less a bucolic Austrian Ländler.  You can almost imagine the slapping of Lederhosen.  There are startling excursions into some remote keys in the first section, the smoothly flowing figures of the second section giving the requisite contrast.  A charming minuet, indeed.

            Ostensibly, the theme of the smashing concluding movement is a Croatian folk song—perhaps, for Haydn played around with the folk style.  The horns open with a typical horn passage—we’ll hear much more of it later—and then repeated along with the principal theme.  Most are used to hearing movements with “first theme” and “second theme,” but it certainly is not requisite, for Haydn had an established penchant making do with just one, and so it is, here.  When it’s time for the “second theme,” we hear a very slightly altered opening theme.  In fact, the entire movement is based more or less upon the opening rhythm of the theme.  It’s a veritable tour de force of economy of means and contrapuntal mastery.  The simple little rhythm just cascades from everywhere in roulades of counterpoint.  It is exactly what we are familiar with from the last movement of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony and the first movement of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.  As the movement heroically drives to the end, the opening horn “fifths” constantly underpin it all, now joined by the trumpets to hammer out the smashing conclusion. Here, Haydn is at the zenith of his career—his astonishing talent reminding us that he’s not the genteel powdered wig “Papa Haydn,” and never was.

  --Wm. E. Runyan

©2022 William E. Runyan