Exploring The Haydn Symphonies: Nos. 1-5
I have recently been listening to Haydn's final set of symphonies, the "London" symphonies, composed in the 1790s, in a performance by Sir Colin Davis and the Royal Concertgebouw. I thought it appropriate to turn from Haydn's works of consummate mastery in the symphonic form to some of his earliest -- symphonies 1-5. This comparison of Haydn's latest with his earliest symphonies gives an excellent overview of the distance in which Haydn took the form over a compositional career of nearly 40 years, beginning when the composer was a young man of about 25. The early symphonies in this compilation are performed idiomatically and well by the Sinfonia Finlandia, a small chamber ensemble, under the direction of Patrick Gallois. This CD is part of the ongoing Naxos recording of the complete cycle of Haydn symphonies, featuring many different ensembles and conductors. It constitutes a fine introduction to early Haydn.
The traditional numbering of Haydn's symphonies is not always an accurate guide to their chronology but at least 4 of the 5 works on this CD date from Haydn's earliest period, i.e, prior to 1761. They are lightly scored for strings, horns, oboes, continuo (a harpsichord is used here). and a bassoon doubling the continuo.
Symphony No 1.in D major may indeed be Haydn's first symphony, although evidence points to what we now know as symphony no. 37 in C major as a strong competitor for that honor. Symphony no. 1 dates from 1759 and probably was written for Haydn's first patron, Count Morzin. It is in three movements and shows its origins in the fast-slow-fast style of the Italian overture. The spirited opening movement opens with an upwardly-rising crescendo figure similar to what was to become known as the "Mannheim crescendo". The slow movements in Haydn's early symphonies are generally moderately paced and use only the strings. This early symphony has a particularly lovely and extended slow movement with a walking theme over a tinkling continuo. The finale in a galant, skipping 3/8 tempo is lively, lyrical and short.
As is symphony no 1, Symphony no 4. in D major, is in the three movement fast-slow-fast pattern. It opens with a loud, energetic presto, but it also includes a second theme in a minor key. The second movement is a lovely early andante with a singing figure in the first violins placed over a slower line in the low strings and a syncopated accompaniment in the second violins. The finale is a sharply outlined, glittery minuet with the horns tooting in the background. The movement picks up force as it comes to a strong close.
Symphony no 2 in C major, is a short, three-movement chamber work of less than ten minutes. As does the first symphony, it opens with a loud ascending scale passage with horns playing a prominent role. There is a lyrical, contrasting second theme. The second movement is a brief andante for muted strings while the quick, lively finale is again in the early galant style.
Symphony no 5 in A major is a different type of work in that it is in four movements and includes a slow opening movement. This music has its background in the church sonata -- a form Haydn also used somewhat later in his "philosopher" symphony, (no. 22) and elsewhere. In the first movement the horns play an important role in developing the slow, solemn theme, and their is a prominent part later in the movement for the oboe. The second movement returns to the quick, galant style we have already heard in several of the other movements on this set. The minuet opens with a staccato, loud theme in the strings with a great deal of solo work for both horn and oboe in the trio. The brief finale makes great use of contrasting soft and loud passages stating a theme in scales.
The final work, Symphony no 3 in G major, is slightly later than its companions and probably was composed in 1761. This is a four-movement work, already highly inventive, which makes great use of counterpoint throughout. The "Oxford Companion to Haydn" describes it as "among Haydn's most distinctive efforts". It opens with a lyrical first theme which becomes treated contrapuntally in passages between the violins and the horns. The second movement is in a minor key and features a theme divided between the violins together with a rolling figure in the continuo. The minuet is in the form of a canon, with the theme in the strings and the trio given to the winds. The short, lively finale is a fugue -- the first of many times that Haydn, and Mozart as well, would use detailed counterpoint in a finale.
The symphonies on this CD are a delight to hear in their own right. Lovers of Haydn and the classical symphony will also enjoy hearing these early works for the light they shed on how the symphony developed. Listeners wanting to explore Haydn's symphonies in detail might wish to consult the "Oxford Companion to Haydn" edited by David Wyn Jones and mentioned briefly above. This work's discussion of "Symphony" summarizes the best of current scholarship regarding the multiple origins of symphonic form and includes an excellent treatment of Haydn's entire symphonic output. But beyond the scholarship, these works are to be enjoyed.