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Symphony No. 72

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Josef Haydn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Steven Isserlis, cello, plays Schumann Feb. 6 - 8, 2014
© Peter Laki

The conventional numbering of Haydn's symphonies is the work of a Viennese musicologist and librarian named Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929), a friend of Brahms, who catalogued all the existing manuscripts in preparation for the first complete edition of Haydn's music in the early 20th century. Mandyczewski attempted to place the symphonies in chronological order, but this was a risky undertaking since documentation was incomplete and a great deal of information missing.

As a result, more recent research has pointed out some errors in Mandyczewski's numbers, though none as gross as in the case of No. 72 which, according to the revised chronology of A. Peter Brown of Indiana University (1943-2003), should really be No. 30! Of course neither Brown nor anyone else would think of replacing the Mandyczewski numbers since they have become universally known and a new numbering would only create confusion. Still, even at first hearing one feels that No. 72 cannot possibly belong to the composer's mature years as the high number would suggest: the opening of the first movement has a definite Baroque feel to it, and there are many stylistic signs throughout the work that point to an earlier date of composition. (But Mandyczewski didn't take internal evidence, or stylistic considerations, into account.) A conclusive piece of external evidence for 1763 as the date of composition comes from a letter written in August of that year by a music copyist named Anton Adolph who was working for Prince Esterházy, Haydn's employer. The man was begging the Prince "on my knees" for a raise, because he was making only 12 guldens a month, with which he had to support his wife, "pay for lodgings, wood and especially candles because I have to write so much at night." To lend further support to his plea, Adolph listed all the works he had had to copy in the previous months-a staggering 3,328 pages in total! The list included two symphonies in D major, one of which can only be the present work.

The anomaly in the numbering is by no means the only thing that makes this symphony special. Haydn himself had endowed it with some rather unusual features. The work could almost be called a "concerto for orchestra" as all four movements consist, in essence, of one instrumental solo after another. It is one of only a handful of Haydn works to have four horns rather than two, as the composer rarely had so many at his disposal. The horn writing is particularly virtuosic in the first movement of No. 72; then the horns are silent in the second movement and given more manageable parts when they return. The great Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon (1926-2009) wrote that the composer "considered the needs of his musicians" whose "lips will be tired from their previous exertions"; Landon saw this as an example of Haydn's "fatherly care for his orchestra" that had begun to show even at the age of 31.

The brilliant horn quartet of the opening Allegro is followed by an intimate dialog between the concertmaster and the flute in the second movement. The minuet showcases the horns (more modestly than before) and the oboes. Finally, the last movement is a true star parade-a theme-and-variation in a surprisingly slow tempo (Andante instead of the expected Allegro) which gives solos, in turn, to the flute, the cello, the violin and even the double bass, which was rarely given such special treatment in the classical era. After a variation for oboes and horns and another for the full orchestra, Haydn introduces his final surprise: a brief "Presto" coda that is unrelated to the variations but functions effectively, in the words of Robbins Landon, as a Kehraus-the final dance at a party signaling that "it is time to go home."