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Symphony No. 21

Related Artists/Companies

Franz Josef Haydn

Past Performances

Image from National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Saint-Saëns's george WASHINGTON" src="/images/assets/30_38/NMCSK_ChristophEschenbach_30.jpg" width="30" class="left" /> National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Saint-Saëns's "Organ Symphony," plus the world premiere of Roger Reynolds's george WASHINGTON - Oct. 3 - 5, 2013

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Josef Haydn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Saint-Saëns's "Organ Symphony," plus the world premiere of Roger Reynolds's george WASHINGTON Oct. 3 - 5, 2013
© Thomas May

It's fitting that our inaugural program of the classical season opens with music by the composer who was a pioneer of the symphonic genre itself. As a "Founding Father" in his own right, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) in one sense represents a musical counterpart to George Washington, his exact contemporary (who was born only a little over a month before him). But even apart from Haydn's historical significance, his music emanates a fresh and inventive spirit that remains intensely engaging. No wonder Beethoven-recalcitrant student though he was-ending up learning so much from Haydn.

Although he wasn't its inventor, Haydn elevated the symphony into a vehicle for the highest level of creativity. In the process, he had to negotiate a balance between artistic exploration and the mandate to entertain. The symphony served as a kind of touchstone for Haydn throughout his long career-up through the final set of symphonies for his London audience, after which he turned back to the great precedent set by Handel's oratorios. How strange, then, that we tend to confine our enjoyment of Haydn's achievement as a symphonist to the dozen masterworks that crown this dimension of his career (with a sprinkling here and there of earlier efforts, most of which come with colorful nicknames). Even with its history of playing Haydn under a leading 20th-century champion of the composer, Antal Doráti, the National Symphony has never programmed the Symphony No. 21 before now.

This symphony is a product of the composer's early years as an employee of the Esterházys, a Hungarian noble family of immense wealth and influence. Prince Paul Anton, the Esterházy patriarch who hired Haydn in 1761, also possessed an exceptional love of music. After a period attempting to get by as a freelancer, Haydn could now benefit from the security that was essential to his temperament. The widespread image of his position as being that of a servant-something along the lines of a mid-18th-century Downton Abbey, with the music staff having to kowtow to their masters-turns out to be not quite accurate. According to the New Grove Dictionary, Haydn was hired on very favorable terms "for a young man of 29 with only one previous position to his credit" and "was no servant, but a professional employee."

Haydn's duties at this stage included directing all instrumental, stage, and secular vocal music, as well as responsibility over the permanent staff of musicians (which entailed overseeing their behavior, serving as godfather to their children, shoring up morale, and the like); he even had to monitor problems with their instruments. When Paul Anton died in 1762, his brother, Nicholas, took over leadership of the remotely located estate and proved to be even more passionate about music. Haydn's remarkable symphonic efforts from this period, when he produced about 25 symphonies (or nearly a quarter of his output in the genre), indicate the flush of creative enthusiasm he must have felt as the result of his valued position.

The household's on-site music ensemble at the time is thought to have comprised 13 to 15 players. The scoring of the Symphony No. 21, which dates from 1764, is for the normal contingent Haydn would have had at his disposal: pairs of oboes and horns, strings, with optional bassoon and cembalo for basso continuo. Limited as these means seem at first in comparison with, say, the Saint-Saëns symphony that will conclude our program-or even with the more expansive later Haydn symphonies-the impression of variety and dynamic texture he elicits is another facet of this composer's innovative frame of thinking. Much of the excitement comes from sensing his trial-and-error inquisitiveness. Haydn is working out all of the major parameters for what will evolve into the burnished perfection of the High Classical symphony: how to present thematic ideas and develop their implications, formal proportions, concertante versus full ensemble textures.

The musicologist Daniel Heartz refers to No. 21 as a "church symphony"-not necessarily because of a sacred context for performance (though such works were on occasion used as part of the music during liturgical celebrations) but by way of allusion to a model perfected in the Baroque, the sonata da chiesa. This "church sonata" paradigm features a slow first movement and other old-fashioned devices: Heartz singles out "subject-and-answer construction" in the slow movements, "canonic or other contrapuntal devices" in the fast movements and minuet, and slower "chorale-like melodies" juxtaposed against "faster counterpoints." All four movements are, moreover, in the same tonality-here, the key of A major.

Given its relative formal freedom, the Adagio movement which opens No. 21might be heard as a larger-scale "introduction" to what follows-a gesture Haydn would later compress into his trademark slow introductions to the first movement proper. A striking octave unison in the strings sets the ensuing Presto in motion, which is further propelled by crisp rhythmic ideas. Fans of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik (written more than two decades later) might experience a déjà vu in the catchy main idea of the Minuet, while the Trio sets aside the oboes and horns for a more graceful, chamber-like dance from the strings. Capping the symphony is another fast movement similar in character to the second movement, again governed by a two-part structure. Vigorous while at the same time delectably clear, this music conveys that sparkling invention and euphoric spirit of play-already Haydn's signature-which the frequently bandied-about adjective "witty" fails to adequately connote.