Franz Joseph Haydn: Symphony no. 1

So the thirty-seventh symphony wasn’t the thirty-seventh. The first symphony might also not be. Haydn certainly isn’t the only (or first) composer to switch around the orders of his compositions, or to have begun a piece earlier than another but published it later. As we have also already seen, the cataloguing and numbering and organizing of such a large body of work from so long ago has also proven to be somewhat troublesome.
To me, it isn’t terribly important. We’re covering these earliest symphonies together. It’s not like they would be decades apart, so I’m not terribly susceptible to being caught up in the actual dates of composition. This one was written in 1759 in what is now the Czech Republic. Haydn himself counted it as his first, but pieces like the first two (or only, in the case of the latter) piano concertos of Beethoven and Chopin had their orders switched. I find those more significant because there are only two of them, in Chopin’s case, or five in Beethoven’s. But out of a total of 100+ symphonies, if Haydn saw fit for this to be his first, then it’s good enough for me. One scholar seems to suggest that no. 2 or 4 could have been written a few years before this one. Go back and listen again (especially if you haven’t yet) to no. 37 from yesterday before you start with this one. Some of the contrasts
I made with the somewhat oddball early-but-marked-later no. 37 were in contrast with this no. 1 (that still might not be no. 1). You will see.  For one, as stated earlier in the week, this one is in three movements:

  1. Presto, 4/4
  2. Andante in G major, 2/4
  3. Presto, 3/8

Wikipedia mentions two things about this symphony, one I noticed and the other I didn’t. The first is the “Mannheim Crescendo,” which is apparently a thing and opens the piece, and the second is the prominence of the violas. The only winds in this symphony are oboe (flute?), bassoon, and two horns. No trumpet, clarinet, or anything else except for strings and continuo, in contrast with yesterday’s trumpet and timpani. Something you’ll notice listening to this work is that it sounds… basically like a really big string quartet, which I guess is called a string orchestra. They’re still kind of in the chamber phase, at this point, so they’re light and clean.
The timpani and trumpet in no. 37 makes it feel bigger and less chamber-y, but no. 1 is even more pared-down. The immediate presence of the harpsichord tells the listener that this piece is very early. I didn’t hear it… almost at all in the 37th.
This presto sounds more… fugue-y. In my head, it’s because this piece was written earlier or is more indicative of its era, while the 37th, as I said before, I believe was perhaps altered or ‘modernized’ somewhat…? I don’t know. They do have their similarities.
The ‘Mannheim crescendo’ and harpsichord are quite obvious from the beginning, and the first movement, while focusing around a strong, prominent first theme, does seem to give us some key changes and exciting development of the material. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. It’s also around five minutes in length, and while the main material is presented a number of times, it doesn’t seem boring. The crisp, kind of energetic liveliness that I enjoy in Haydn’s music is very apparent here as well.
The second movement is quite proper, pleasant, and quieter than the the prestos that bookend it. It has moments of pleasant, metered melody, and moments that feel distant and nostalgic and almost bittersweet.
The third movement returns to the general mood of the first presto, but it’s half as long. It’s nice.
What is there to say? Again. These are going to be brief. See you tomorrow for number two.


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