skip navigation | text only | accessibility | site map

Symphony No. 85 "La Reine"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Josef Haydn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Dotian Levalier, harp/Mahler's First Symphony Jun. 7 - 9, 2007
© Richard Freed
Haydn composed this symphony in 1785; it was introduced in Paris toward the end of 1787. Antal Doráti conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performances of this work, on October 9, 10 and 11, 1973; Richard Hickox conducted the most recent ones, on May 20, 21 and 22, 1993.

The score calls for a flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. Duration, 22 minutes.

While Haydn did not venture more than a hundred miles from his birthplace until Johann Peter Salomon persuaded him to come to London in 1791, his music was known everywhere. It was published in London, Paris and Amsterdam as well as in Vienna and, while he was a liveried servant of the Esterházy establishment (under the most benevolent of masters), he was free to accept commissions, and had royal patrons in Naples, Spain and Prussia. His grandest foreign success prior to his two triumphal visits to London in the 1790s was one he was not on hand to enjoy personally: the presentation during the Paris season of 1787-88 of the six symphonies he had composed during 1785 and '86 for that city's leading concert series, Le Concert de la Loge Olympique.

The Loge Olympique was the Masonic lodge whose members organized the concerts. While the two events had no connection with each other, it may be noted that Haydn became a Freemason himself shortly before he received this commission from Paris. He joined the Masonic order in Vienna, at Mozart's urging, on February 11, 1785, the day before the "quartet party" at which Mozart introduced some of the string quartets he dedicated to Haydn and the latter made his famous declaration to Mozart's father acknowledging the younger composer's supreme genius. In any event, these six symphonies, Nos. 82-87, were so successful in their respective premieres that they were repeated in the Concert Spirituel, the rival series for which Mozart had written his one "Paris" Symphony (No. 31 in D major, K. 297) in 1778, and further commissions followed at once. All the Symphonies Haydn composed between these six and his final dozen for London, in fact, were written for Paris, but not under the same conditions of exclusivity as this set.

Enumeration is not a reliable guide to the chronology of Haydn's works, and even within the sets of symphonies he composed for Paris and London it is jumbled. The initial publication, in Paris, presented the six of the set under discussion in the order 87-85-83-84-86-82. Haydn himself suggested to his Viennese publisher, Artaria, that the order should be 83-87-85-82-86-84, and this sequence would appear to be more truly chronological than the one implied by the familiar numbers attached to the respective works. No. 85 happens to be the work in the set whose date is hardest to pin down, but it was probably composed in 1785, as were Nos. 83 and 87, while the remaining three were written in the following year.

Three of the six symphonies in Haydn's "Paris" set have nicknames as well as numbers. No. 82 in C major is called "The Bear," and No. 83 in G minor is called "The Hen," because certain effects in the music itself suggested those titles; the title given No. 85, however, does not reflect the music's content but stands as a certificate of royal favor. Marie Antoinette declared this work her favorite and, with both her consent and Haydn's, the designation "La Reine de France" appeared on the title page of the score when it was published by the house of Imbault in 1788. General usage has shortened this to "La Reine," and the symphony so identified has remained the best-known part of the set.

Haydn may not have been aiming for royal favor, but he saw to it that this work in particular contained a number of elements readily identifiable as French. The slow introduction to the opening movement is in a direct lien of descent from the French overture style taken up earlier in the eighteenth century by Bach and Telemann. The first movement proper is remarkable, even among Haydn's own works of this period, for its crispness and elegance. A cantabile line in the upper voices is set off against an angular staccato in the bass, and early in the movement Haydn quite uncharacteristically cites, in thinly disguised form, one of his earlier compositions, the opening of the "Farewell" Symphony, No. 45 in F-sharp minor.

H.C. Robbins Landon has written of "Haydn's non-slow slow movements," and the ingratiating Allegretto of this work is a prime example. It is headed Romance, and is a set of variations on an old French folk song called "La gentille et jeune Lisette." "Of course Haydn was paying a pretty compliment to his Parisian public," Mr. Landon observes, "but apart from that the theme sounds just like Haydn anyway."

The Menuetto, distinguished for its vivacity and wit, is especially noteworthy for its superb trio, a striking section in its own right, commencing with a bassoon solo and building to a point at which, in Mr. Landon's words, "time seems to stand still in a magical way as Haydn spins out his melody over a gigantic pedal point in the horns." The exuberant Presto finale is one of the most infectious and most polished examples up to its time of the "sonata-rondo" form which Haydn pioneered and perfected.

The various imaginative and enchanting color effects in this symphony are achieved with an economy of means that was in no way dictated by the Loge Olympique, whose orchestra was one of the largest in Europe (more than 40 violins, a dozen double basses, similar proportions in other sections), but possibly by Haydn's practical concern for the work's availability to more modestly equipped ensembles.