Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet II: CASUAL II
Music of the Masters
January 29, 2017
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is widely admired for his wit, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) for his drama and intensity. Both composers, of course, range far more widely than that, and we bracket this afternoon’s concert with two symphonies that reverse the commonplaces—the highly dramatic Symphony No. 44 (c.1771) by Haydn and the surprisingly whimsical Symphony No. 8 (1811-12) by Beethoven.
The Haydn comes from his so-called Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period. At the time, he was experimenting with a number of techniques for heightened expressivity, all of which are on display here: increased use of the minor mode, striking dynamic contrasts, driving rhythms, sudden shifts in mood, uneasy harmonic lurches, stabbing dissonances where you least expect them. There are surprising formal choices, too. Normally, for instance, the second movement would be the slow movement, but Haydn puts the minuet here—and an eccentric minuet at that. This is a dark, almost ghostly dance, marked throughout the outer sections by canonic writing, the violins playing the melody—a fairly skeletal one—with the cellos and basses obsessively echoing them a measure behind (they fall two measures behind toward the end of the section).
The Adagio follows, and besides its unusual placement, it too brings a major surprise: it’s the sunniest movement in the Symphony. To add to the oddity of this symphony, it’s this relatively bright movement that gives the symphony its nickname Trauer (“Mourning”). Like so many classical-music nicknames, its origin is sketchy—but according to some stories, Haydn asked to have this Adagio played at his funeral. After this respite, the Sturm und Drang agitation returns for the thrilling finale. Haydn had a very small ensemble at his disposal when he wrote this piece for the orchestra at the court of his patrons, the Esterházy family—probably not many more than a dozen players. But that does not seem to have constrained either his imagination or his emotional potency.
Beethoven’s Eighth was composed in 1811-12, overlapping with the composition of the very different Seventh—very different and much more popular. If the Seventh represents an extension of the kind of fury found in the Fifth, the Eighth resists such heaven-storming. In fact, it’s in many ways the most whimsical of Beethoven’s symphonies. No room in this high-spirited work, for instance, for the sobriety or contemplation of a slow movement—instead, the second movement Allegro Scherzando pushes ahead insistently, possibly inspired by the early metronome, whose sound seems represented by the steady rhythmic punctuations of the winds. And while Haydn, in his Symphony No. 44, uses disruption to add to our anxiety, Beethoven uses the unexpected to far more benign ends. Odd accents interrupt the minuet, where the orchestra sometimes seems at a loss for how to continue, and where Beethoven—who must have heard his share of poor orchestral coordination—writes music that seems ready to fall apart. There are plenty of instrumental gags, too, not only at the expense of the bassoons (an easy and familiar target) but also at the expense of the cellos, who chug away on ungainly arpeggios under the horns at the beginning of the Trio. And in the skittish finale, Beethoven—who, in his serious works, could draw his conclusions out to tremendous lengths—seems to be poking fun at himself in a closing that refuses to end.
In between these two stereotype-busting symphonies, we offer one of Haydn’s most popular works—and what is certainly the most beloved trumpet concerto in the repertoire. It’s so beloved, in fact, that it’s easy to forget how experimental it was when new. It is, as this afternoon’s soloist John Raschella points out, “the first piece written for the modern chromatic instrument.” Until then, trumpets didn’t have valves, so they could only play the notes of the overtone scale. Adding keys (the first step toward the development of more advanced instruments with valves) allowed the performer to play the notes in between. How well? John is convinced that the first models of this keyed instrument (actually, a bugle with flute keys added), invented by Haydn’s trumpet-playing colleague Anton Weidinger, probably sounded very uneven. He adds, “I’m sure the intonation was poor based on descriptions of the first keyed bugles”—and the need to improve the technology may explain why there was a four-year gap between the concerto’s composition and its first performance. But whatever the limits of that first instrument, Haydn managed to write a remarkably forward-looking piece, with a gorgeously poetic second movement that takes the instrument into new expressive realms. No surprise that it shows up on nearly all trumpet auditions.
The familiar Haydn wit is clear from the beginning. The concerto begins simply enough, with the trumpet doing little more than what traditional trumpets could do at the time. In fact, when John, a student at Roxboro middle school in North Syracuse, first saw the score on his band-teacher’s desk, his first reaction was, “Hey, this looks easy.” But once Haydn gets his audience settled into traditional listening, he suddenly has his trumpet doing things no trumpet has done before—and when the teen-aged John looked at the second page, where the trumpet starts playing like a violin with “a whole page of angst which ends up on a concert D-flat,” his youthful confidence melted. He went on to learn the lyrical second movement and the finale while still in high school, and eventually the first movement, too. This has always been a favorite piece for John—and it’s our good luck to hear him perform it this afternoon, especially since, despite decades of familiarity, this is the first time he’s had a chance to play the whole piece with the original orchestral accompaniment.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org