Note: This is the tenth installment of my continuing series about the greatest symphonies. I plan to conclude with two more posts sometime in the future.
By the time we reach Great Symphonies beyond the number Nine the list of distinctive composers narrows considerably. Mahler composed some large portions of a projected five-movement Tenth but he died before he could proceed beyond that. Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvorak are all gone. Yet, two of the greatest composers of all time created their greatest symphonic works far beyond their first nine symphonies.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived to compose 41 symphonies. Franz Joseph Haydn wrote an astonishing 104 symphonies. These two giants of the classical symphonic form influenced many who followed them, including Beethoven himself. Along with Johann Sebastian Bach, who never composed a symphony as I use the term, Haydn and Mozart form the three great pillars of pre-Beethoven composition. Their works are still widely performed and are as appreciable today as they were well over 200 years ago.
I have, at one time or another, managed to listen to all of Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies. Being rather obsessive about certain things, I have kept a small notebook on which of these symphonies made the most impression on me. For Haydn, the first work of the symphonic form to impress is his Symphony No. 45 (1772). Before that, his symphonies sound at times interesting but hardly interesting throughout. Like Mozart, most of Haydn’s earliest symphonies clock-in at less than 20 minutes; shorter than many symphonic movements of, say, Mahler and Bruckner.
By the time you reach Haydn’s Symphony No. 88 (1787) you are experiencing his full genius for composition. In fact, you can make a strong argument that any of his last 16 symphonies can be considered “Great” in the context of this series of posts. This is an extraordinary achievement in the sheer quantity of quality, especially considering most of the great composers never created more than nine symphonic offerings to begin with – many of them, like Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, achieved much fewer such works of this art form.
Haydn’s No. 88 is truly “Great” in my estimation. A slow, stately introduction is built around strong chords that give way to a lively theme gradually expressed in robust fashion by the entire orchestra. It is a foot tapper at times. The second movement, a largo, is beautiful and melodic, carried initially by an oboe and cellos then by all strings. The serene moment is thrice interrupted briefly by forceful chords before quickly returning to the poignant music announced earlier with woodwinds supported by strings.
The third movement is a minuet and features typical Haydn vigorousness before transforming into a proper peasant dance. The symphony concludes with a continuation of the pleasant and sturdy style of the previous dance. Haydn is confident and joyful throughout No. 88.
One cannot have a complete discussion about Haydn without mentioning a fondness for the “Surprise” symphony, No. 94 (1791). In it we find the wonderful sense of humor that Haydn placed into many of his symphonies. Haydn wants to make you giggle. In this case the giggle is to watch as his music settles old fat royal men and women into being almost asleep then shocks them with powerful fully orchestrated chords at an active beat. The resulting “surprise” early on the symphony’s second movement was a giggle, at least for Haydn. Let’s jolt them out of their seats.
No. 94 is a truly Great symphony, comparable (within context) to most symphonies discussed in this blog series. Haydn lulls you in the pastoral-like opening, but suddenly, spritely, a main theme is taken up by the full string section. The variations pass from supple, quiet moments, to strapping, rhythmic soundings of the entire orchestra; yet Haydn remains generally relaxed throughout. Then, in the second movement, also in a somewhat regimented softness, at times barely audible, until about 30 seconds in, “Bomp!” Haydn hits with his joke. After that, the movement meanders along nicely and ends gently. It is punctuated twice by a marvelous full, heavy, richly layered orchestral flourish.
In the majority of Haydn symphonies the third movement is a dance-like minuet-trio carried by the strings. No. 94 shows this compositional preference at its best. It is lite and confident and particular. The finale, while expertly composed, lasts less than four minutes. The commonality of such short symphonic movements during this time partly allowed for Haydn’s large number of such compositions. Most Haydn movements are 5-7 minutes long and none of his symphonies lasted 30 minutes. Most clock-in less than 25 minutes. After all, the intent was aristocratic after-dinner entertainment or for outdoor galas. The audience could be expected to listen only so long before taking a conversation break.
My personal favorite Haydn symphony is the Great No. 101, “The Clock” (1794). Its beginnings are lite and almost Beethoven-ish already, years before Beethoven. Haydn’s orchestration is a basic influence on Beethoven’s style later. Haydn is masterful in many forms of classical music. His piano sonatas are considered brilliant as are his string quartets. I own all his piano trios and these are works I definitely enjoy. Great compositions in lesser forms. But, the symphonic Haydn is extraordinary and, perhaps, his greatest singular artistic achievement.
While Haydn did not “invent” the symphony or the sonata or the quartet, he was the first great master of these classical forms. His expertise warrants the title of “father” to many musical forms and certainly to the symphony.
Many of his symphonies (beginning with No. 6) open with a mixed adagio-allegro or adagio-presto style. This is an innovation by Haydn. To introduce the fast movement with a short, slow prelude was a novel musical idea. These are largely carried by the strings providing a typically optimistic air with winds and horns providing considerable weight and variation. The Clock is a nimble, nymph-like, precision machine. A happy force. The Clock’s adagio portion first movement builds slowly, and – in a bit of a rarity – ominously, weighty, somewhat cloudy. But, a little less than 3 minutes in you experience this upbeat use of the entire orchestra led, of course, by strings.
The second movement andante is the symphony’s most famous movement and my favorite among many splendid Haydn moments from which to choose. I consider it to be almost an archetypal blend of The Enlightenment and Art. Structured. Strict. Clock-like until, suddenly, one-third of the way in to the movement, there is an exquisite and strong Beethoven/Schubert orchestral striving. After that marvelous fury the movement becomes rather methodical, as a clock. Many clever variations follow.
It gives way to another dance third movement, containing a distinctive and refreshing rhythm. It is a joy to listen to, very bold and self-assured. The final movement lasts a brief, five minutes. It is an emotionally played vivace featuring instrumental, technical dexterity and ability to pull off, particularly for the strings.
Haydn demands the best possible musicians for his final symphonies. They are all filled with many notes and passages to be played authoritatively in a Mozart fashion. In many ways Haydn is the reverse blending of Mozart and Beethoven. The late Haydn is stylistically intermingled with the late Mozart. His Symphony No. 104 contains and underlying heaviness that Mozart would examine in his own Great Nos. 40 and 41.
Like Haydn, Mozart has a large number of potential Great symphonies. For me, Nos. 35, 40, and 41 are towering efforts of genius. Several other later ones, such as Nos. 31, 36, 38, 39, could also be considered, but I would not rank them above the previously mentioned three. These three would make any Mozart symphonic list.
Like Haydn, most of the early Mozart is short and sweet. His first symphony, composed when he was 8(!) years old, lasts a mere 16 minutes. It represents the typical, upbeat symphonic sound of its times. It is noteworthy, of course, like many of Mozart’s early works, simply due to the fact he was a child prodigy.
The Great No. 35 (1782) is also known as the “Haffner” symphony. The first movement is a rather agile and dexterous piece, powerful and rich. Its technical sophistication probably surpasses anything Haydn composed and it is certainly one the finest movements in Mozart’s symphonic arsenal. The slow movement that follows offers a contrasting, refreshing gentility, with a nice woodwind interlude. Mozart follows Haydn’s example with a short minuet trio third movement, only this one has an atypical pastoral quality, only slightly dance-like. Mozart specified that the final movement, a presto, is to be performed as quickly as possible. At times it gallops along on its way to a more relaxed, though authoritative, conclusion.
With the Great No. 40 (1788), Mozart reaches a level of complexity and bountiful variation that surpasses Haydn. We are now in a more “modern” symphonic expression, with a duration of 35 minutes. The opening is one of Mozart’s most famous pieces, establishing a wonderful eloquence. There is a hint of serious sadness here that is rather noticeable since almost everything else I have written about in this post is a joyous and carefree composition. But, the slight melancholy undertone does not threaten to override the beauty that pervades the movement. Once more, we stand on the threshold of Beethoven in terms of sophistication and emotional expression.
The second movement is serene, carried predominantly by the string section particularly accented by the violas. This piece in itself is probably my favorite Mozart symphonic movement. At over 14 minutes it is longer than most other movements from this time period and far longer than any movement Haydn composed. This length is indicative of Mozart’s ability to push the complexity, exploration, and juxtaposition of themes (just two in this case) into numerous enjoyable variations.
Once again, the third movement is a dance minuet that evolves into a trio and forms a chivalrous quality and a refined idyllic melody carried by woodwinds and strings. The finale is traditional and vigorous. The pace relaxes about one-third of the way in before returning to a spirited and technically demanding conclusion.
The Great No. 41 (1788) is dubbed “Jupiter”. I believe this is the first work by Mozart that I listened to back when I was introducing myself to classical music. It was fortuitous because every budding classical connoisseur should find this to be an entertaining musical work.
With his last symphonies Mozart surpasses Haydn. The opening of Jupiter is tumultuous at times, reflecting a consideration outside the norm of lite, dexterous music. There are certainly echoes of all that in the first movement. There is a second theme that is more delicate and graceful. But these qualities do not dominate the course of things like the weighty ferocity that pervades the movement. Beethoven would be impressed later and follow Mozart’s lead. This is a distinctive dramatic height.
We are in true classical symphony composition territory here so there is a slow, second movement. This is an excellent example of Mozart developing his own style with the way he allows the strings to be nested in the woodwinds. It has a fine flowery texture, if you will. Yet, as in the first movement, there is a bit of a dark undertone contrasting with a delicate sweetness that affects the listener on an emotional level.
Classical compositional style. Minuet-trio third movement. See a pattern here? Mozart gives us a conversation between his brilliant use of woodwinds and the sweeping strings; a lovely and lite movement with regimented dance qualities. In the finale Mozart goes out on top, as it were, with a brilliant movement that transcends most any symphonic expression before it. It is self-assured, strong, but eloquent and radiant. Sensitive yet strong. Soft and boisterous. Just a joy to experience.
I would rank Mozart slightly ahead of Haydn. His Greats often sound Haydn-like but they explore emotional depths that Haydn, with all his precision and mastery, did not venture into far. Mozart’s No. 40 is probably the best of all symphonies mentioned in this post, surpassing Haydn’s Great No. 94, if comparable. But the superiority is marginal. Haydn was a brilliant symphonist, as I have said.
To recapitulate, they stand as two of the great pillars upon which all of classical music as a genre rested before Beethoven. A third pillar being Bach who, due to the fact he did not compose symphonies in the classical sense but was rather of the Baroque genre, does not enter into our consideration in this series.
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