Haydn Symphony no. 11 in E-flat (H. I/11)

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

Well, here we are… at our final Haydn (symphony) for a while, after another stretch of works. Again, I promise once we get to the later stuff I won’t be taking these in such large sweeping gestures.

Today’s symphony stands out from the previous four (20, 17, 19, 25)  from this week in a number of ways. For one, there’s a massive (we’re speaking in relative terms here) ten-minute opening movement which makes up almost half the work, marked adagio cantabile. So it’s a slow movement. And what else is it, a.k.a. why is Papa Haydn opening with a slow movement?

It’s a sonata da chiesa, or church sonata, but not actually sacred music of any kind. Wiki (in that link) describes the form as:

… generally consisting of four movements. More than one melody was often used, and the movements were ordered slow–fast–slow–fast with respect to tempo. The second movement was usually a fugal allegro, and the third and fourth were binary forms that sometimes resembled the sarabande and gigue.

This form was, in fact, used by Haydn in some of his earlier symphonies, notably the fifth, even though it “had become outdated by the time of Joseph Haydn.” H. C. Robbins Landon apparently makes a link between 5 and 11, since they are both of this form and have “finales that are not in the customary (for the time period) 3/8 meter,” says Wiki.

Boy, the winds must get bored in the first movement. There’s really not a lot going on, but when it does go on, it happens in A/B repeated parts. These works were more often concert pieces than religious, so I’m not sure what the association is with churchy anything in the works themselves, but it’s definitely a more somber opening movement (and a big one) than the brisk, bubbly openings we’re used to.

Reaching the second movement is a bit of an ‘aha’ moment, in that this is what sounds like the beginning of a Haydn symphony. In fact, oddly, if one lops of the first movement, the subsequent three kind of make their own fast-slow-fast symphony, leaving the enormous first movement out by itself, but again, we’re not working in the form that you might be used to. The second movement contains those things I’ve come to expect and enjoy from FJ, like syncopation, repeated notes, call-and-answer with horn and strings, and some counterpoint. It’s a welcome change, a sweet movement made sweeter by the contrast with what preceded it. It sounds more… spacious. That might sound like a comment on the recording, but it sounds like the individual sections/instruments are interacting more with each other rather than one composite instrument, and this adds a depth and spaciousness to the ensemble’s sound.

The third movement ….. sounds like Haydn. It’s minuet-ish, and proper. One hears a horn here and there, and quieter, more exposed moments, but the real highlight is in the trio, as below.

It might not quicken the pulse of an audience, but it’s an interesting effect that the second violin starts a half-beat later than the rest, giving the trio a cute, bouncy, off-kilter quality, but one that’s endearing, not annoying.

The finale gives us more offbeats and energy, but begins quietly, as a fast movement, triplets and trills and all the rest. It’s crisp and refreshing, playful, even a bit silly at moments, and I’d say is easily the most enjoyable movement of this work. I even actually heard the oboe by itself. Some of the string work sounds like laughter to me; it’s harmonically interesting, reaches a climax, goes places, and all finishes in about three and a half minutes.

It’s movements like this final one and the trio of the third movement that show you that while Haydn’s earliest symphonies might not be the masterpieces his later works are (how could they be?) they still show a talented person working artistically at his craft. It may be the smallest of details that inspire or endear one to these (also small) symphonies.

The result, then, is not throwing things against a wall and seeing what sticks, but refining and developing, not just of ‘a voice’ as a composer (and an era), but an entire form, be it the symphony or the string quartet. These early works give us a glimpse of that process, the early, more exploratory efforts, prototypes, if you will, of what incredible works he would later deliver. At this point we’ve covered only 14 of the composer’s symphonies, meaning we still have 90 left, give or take. In due time.

Stay tuned this weekend for string quartets and next week for another composer with a pile of symphonies to get through, although only half as substantial (perhaps unfortunately) as Haydn. See you then.

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