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Symphony No. 83 in G minor, "La Poule"

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Haydn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Andreas Delfs, conductor / Nelson Freire, piano, plays Brahms May 17 - 19, 2012
© Peter Laki

Haydn never set foot in Paris in his life, but his name and his music were well known there in the 18th century.  Sometimes, it must be said, his name was better known than his music was, because not all the music printed in the French capital as genuine Haydn was actually by him.  Publishers were so eager to cash in on the market value of Haydn's name that they, on a number of occasions, passed off other composers' works as his.  (In the case of one set of string quartets, researchers discovered how the name of one Romanus Hoffstetter was erased from the engraved plate and replaced by Haydn's name.  This set, long known as Haydn's ?Op. 3," contained a ?Serenade" that at one point ranked among Haydn's most popular works!)

Haydn had been part of the French musical scene for about twenty years before it first occurred to a representative of that scene to contact him directly.  A Parisian aristocrat named Count d'Ogny commissioned six symphonies for a concert organization known as the Concert de la Loge Olympique.  It was by far the most lucrative offer Haydn had ever received, and the works, which he composed over the next two years, were ?the grandest he had yet composed," according to Haydn scholar James Webster.  Most of Haydn's earlier symphonies were written for local use by Prince Esterházy's orchestra in provincial Eszterháza, Hungary, and although it was by all accounts an excellent ensemble, its audiences were very different from those in the great European capitals.  Even though he had never ventured west of Vienna, Haydn was able to find a style that would please concertgoers in Paris and London.  (Shortly before the Paris set, he also wrote three symphonies, Nos. 76-78, apparently for a visit to London that did not materialize.  Haydn wouldn't see England until 1791.)

In describing Haydn's new style of the 1780's, Webster notes ?a combination of learned and popular style, consistency of musical argument and depth of feeling."  Each of these attributes is clearly in evidence in Symphony No. 83.  The work's opening invokes a grand tragic gesture associated with the so-called Sturm und Drang (?storm and stress") style Haydn had cultivated about a decade earlier-a dark motif emphasizing the dissonant degree of the augmented fourth (C sharp in the key of G minor).  The dramatic passion of this first theme is offset by a cheerful second melody which, when repeated, acquires that clucking accompaniment figure in the oboe that earned the symphony its nickname in the 19th century.  Later this same figure is taken over by the first flute, and then by the entire violin section.  The whole movement seems like a friendly contest between these two worlds:  the passionate, and somewhat theatrical, utterances in minor keys on one hand, and the carefree melody with the ?hen" in the background on the other.  There is no question about the outcome of the contest.  In this symphony, officially referred to as ?G minor" because it begins in that key, no movement actually ends in the minor.  The recapitulation of the first movement shifts to G major instead, and stays on the sunny side from that point onwards.

The second movement's heartfelt opening melody unfolds at a leisurely pace, but is soon disrupted by one of Haydn's irresistible jokes.  The second violins and violas play a series of repeated notes that sound as though they were the accompaniment of a melody about to begin.  The accompaniment continues, but there is no melody.  The repeated notes become softer and softer until a sudden orchestral outburst clears the air and finally ushers in the movement's second theme.  As in the first movement, there is a duality of moods in the music:  the various interruptions of the lyrical melody cause a temporary imbalance, but the melody itself is restored to its serene glory at the end.

In the third movement of this symphony written for Paris, the minuet, which had had its origins at the French royal court, returns ?home" dressed in Austrian country garb.  Haydn enlivens the dance with a clever metric game as the opening motif shifts from an offbeat to an onbeat position.  The trio is more straightforward; its folksy melody is entrusted to a solo flute, playing along with the first violins.

Dance rhythms-an ingenious combination of the gigue and the contradanse-dominate the finale, which is playful and jovial throughout, except for a moment in the development section where Haydn suddenly introduces minor chords and an unexpectedly stark harmonic sequence.  But the clouds don't last very long and the music soon returns to its happy initial state.  A short moment of hesitation just before the end, where the dance comes to a momentary halt, only adds to the fun.