Haydn Symphony no. 20 in C (H. I/20)

performed by the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra under Adam Fischer, or below by the Philharmonia Hungarica under Antal Dorati


Haydn symphonies, man. There’s a ton of them. I feel bad-ish for burning through them in quick stretches like this, but if we don’t, we’ll never get around to his magnificent late works, and we haven’t even gotten to Beethoven 5 yet (much less 9, or a lot else), so, as we have been doing with the earliest string quartets, we’ll be jumping through five more symphonies of Papa Haydn this week. Once we get to the later works, we’ll stop to savor it some more. Think of this as the quicker, perhaps less committed wine tasting, where we take sips of the wines, but never a full glass, and maybe make more liberal use of the spit bucket.

But that’s not to say these are unpleasant or insignificant works. These symphonies still date from about a decade earlier than the op. 17 quartets we discussed last week, so we’re still in a much earlier phase of the composer’s development, even though he was by this time around 30 years old. Late bloomer?

It’s quite a light, “festive” work. Wikipedia uses that word in quotes, referencing Antony Hodgson’s The Music of Joseph Haydn: The Symphonies. I’d have called it festive anyway. After listening to many string quartets, it feels like… like this symphony isn’t terribly far removed from those works, especially considering winds (2 oboes, bassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets) are tacet for the second movement.

The first movement is brisk and immediately engaging. All the content of the first movement, marked allegro molto, is pretty energetic and crisp. There are wide leaps in the violin lines, long notes at the beginning of a phrase against sixteenth notes toward the end. That seems like a small thing, but those two qualities along with the bright disposition of C major make for a friendly, fresh first movement, like sparkling lemonade before a light outdoor meal.

In fact, that picnicky feeling continues into the second movement. Winds go silent and we have all strings, only violins bowed, the rest pizzicato, only bowing here and there, and in G. Marked andante, it brings to mind (more of) an outdoor, refreshing lunch on a lawn somewhere in rural Austria (or I guess Hungary) with an ensemble playing in the background, perfect weather, sun shining. There’s a repeat of the beginning 36 bars, and a bit of modulation somewhere, but it’s pretty uniform in its gentle pleasantness, comforting, serene.

The menuetto comes next, and it fits with my picnic program idea (which is solely mine, and likely inaccurate). Horn calls, and triplets from strings at the ends of phrases give this shortest of the movements a cute lilt and bucolic nature. The trio is yet more intimate, with what sounds like a solo violin, but more triplets, and the second part of the trio features some call-and-response from the high and low strings.

The finale is just wonderful. It’s the liveliest of the movements so far, and the most expansive feeling. The first theme contains bouncy, almost unruly-ish playful strings that sound like laughter before making it to a section marked minore, G minor. It’s the greatest contrast we’ve had in the work so far, and we slip right back into our bright, almost frolicking-friendly major key finish.

It’s no Mahler, but it’s a very pleasant 14-and-a-half minute work, with loads of subtle but effective detail. You’ll also notice that the flutes, oboe, bassoons were almost entirely unnoticeable in the work, horns taking most of the wind attention in their (seemingly extremely-high written parts).

The composer by this time was (likely at least) around 30 years old, but we will still be seeing him develop his craft. While his skill seems to be there from the beginning, the execution of it, the inventiveness, I think is what we’ll see continue to skyrocket through to his later symphonies, but for now, this work is a refreshing little symphony, a highlight of the early works of his that I’ve heard, that shows attention to detail, contrast, and just…. good writing. Stay tuned this week for four more.

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