HAYDN – La Passione

So much of Joseph Haydn’s creative life and output centres around his experiences at the Esterházy Court in Esterház, the elaborate palace opened by Prince Nicolaus in 1766. The security and encouragement it afforded him is often so clearly suggested in the music he wrote, and in the considerable advances he made in the development of his style. Nowhere is this development of a creative talent more evident than in his compositions for String Quartet, and in his Symphonies.

Often known as the ‘Father of the Symphony’, by far the majority of his symphonic output was composed during his time at Esterház. Yet we say ‘symphonic’… In our understanding, that is a big concept, both in scale and in numbers of players. But for Haydn, who was expected to perform his works solely to the Prince and a limited audience, there were only usually about 12 – 16 players available for any one performance. This only increased to a very limited extent during his time at the court, but essentially our modern understanding of a Haydn symphony from these years at Esterház is very different from the reality as Haydn would have known it, in performance. For this recording, Arion gives an all-too-rare glimpse of this world that Haydn himself experienced. Using the number of players and instruments typically available at the palace*, we present a recording of three of Haydn’s most remarkable, and wonderful, middle period symphonies, written during his first years as full music director at Esterház. One is certainly justified in calling them ‘symphonies’; but in using such modest forces, an inevitable conclusion to be drawn is that they are far closer in spirit & concept to the string quartets and other chamber music of this period than, say, the magnificent symphonies he wrote much later, in London or Paris. The leader of the orchestra, Luigi Tomasini, was also the inspiration for his quartet writing – an orchestra and quartet in which Haydn also played second violin, as well as harpsichord.

All of the symphonies included on this recording stem from what was later known as Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period (that is, ‘Storm and Stress’: a title taken from a play of the same name by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger). The period itself extends for nearly ten years, from the very moment Prince Nicolaus opened his new palace. To put that date into context, Mozart was 10 years old and Handel had been dead for 6 years. With titles such as Trauer, Lamentatione, Feuer and La Passione, the general mood and intention of these symphonies is already clear. Also, put in the context of other composer’s work at this time, such as J.S. Bach’s son, Johann Christian (the so-called ‘London’ Bach), the predominance of works in a minor key by Haydn during this period is almost unique. Indeed, Bach only wrote one symphony in a minor key during his whole career! We do not necessarily think of Haydn as a composer constantly ‘bucking the trend’…but when we begin to realise just how adventurous, inventive and creative he really was in the context of his time, the affect he had on Beethoven’s development, for instance, becomes all the clearer.

Symphony No.41 in C major was composed in 1769. This is a magnificent work, often ignored in favour of the better-known Symphony No. 48 in C major (Maria Theresa). Like Symphony No. 48, it was originally published with a full array of trumpets and timpani, as well as a part for solo flute, in addition to the more regular grouping of strings, oboes & horns. However, the more sparsely scored version we present on this recording undoubtedly represents Haydn’s first thoughts about the work, since there is an authenticated manuscript extant which contains no evidence of either trumpets or timpani. To my knowledge, this is the premiere recording of this original version: and heard without the pomp and clatter of additional trumpets and timpani, the stratospheric C alto horn writing sounds even more extraordinary and impressive – haunting even – as well as packing twice the punch! Of particular note in this symphony is the beautiful Un poco andante, which, with the addition of a solo flute and much inventive writing, seems to pave the way for some of the composer’s finest intimate moments in the later ‘London’ Symphonies. In the context of Haydn’s time, it was still something of a rarity to include a wind instrument in any slow movement – an effect heightened by the addition of horns playing in C basso. The ensuing Menuet (and, in particular, the Trio) sees a breathtaking return to C alto writing, containing some of the highest writing in the entire horn repertoire!

If there is one symphony which truly encapsulates the feeling of this Sturm und Drang period, it must surely be the Symphony No. 49 in F minor, entitled La Passione, which was composed a year earlier than No. 41, in 1768. The last in a sequence of symphonies written using an antiquated form based on the church sonata, it opens with a powerful, heart-rending slow movement. Written in the pessimistic, and extremely rare key (during the C18th) of F minor, all four movements remain in the minor throughout; only the trio allows us an occasional glimpse of hope! It is possible this profound work was intended to be performed on Good Friday, and it deeply impressed the musical world of Haydn’s time, judging by the number of manuscript copies and publications available all over Europe.

The Trauersymphonie in E minor, No. 44, is possibly Haydn’s greatest achievement during the whole Sturm und Drang period. Dating from around 1771, it is a highly charged work throughout – with the singular exception of an exquisite slow movement, which, it is known Haydn requested to be played at his own funeral. Counterpoint features heavily in the extended first movement, and in the extraordinary minuet, which contains a strict canon between upper and lower parts. The finale is perhaps the most concentrated and dramatic movement of this whole period: the tension is often so overwhelming that it leaves the listener feeling totally exhausted, in addition to the players themselves!

* For this recording, we have chosen to include one extra viola player in addition to Haydn’s known list of players at Esterház. It is a clear, from the following letter of 1768, that Haydn recommends such a addition: “I would ask you to use two players on the viola part throughout, for the inner parts sometimes need to be heard more than the upper parts, and you find in all my compositions that the viola rarely doubles the bass.” [from The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn, edited and translated H.C. Robbins Landon].

© Gary Cooper, 2008