Brussels Philharmonic | Haydn & Mozart | programme notes

Haydn & Mozart

Haydn & Mozart

programme notes


Joseph Haydn Symphony No. 92 in G Major, Hob.I:92 'Oxford' (1789)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, KV 466 (1785)
Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 103 in E-Flat Major, Hob.I:103 'Paukenwirbel' (1795)

[discover more: Mozart Deconstructed]
[all programme notes]



For the second year in a row, we dive into the works of the fathers of the symphony with music director Kazushi Ono. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 is on the programme, while Joseph Haydn shows, in his Symphony No. 92 and Symphony No. 103, that he is a master of the timpani drums.

Is there a doctor in the house?

When Joseph Haydn travelled to Great Britain at the end of the eighteenth century, at the request of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, he almost immediately became a public figure. He wrote in a letter:

"Everyone wants to know me [...] But first I must consider my health, and second my work… I admit no callers till 2 o’clock in the afternoon."

No wonder, as Haydn was then at the peak of his abilities as an artist. His concerts and his music attracted full houses of madly enthusiastic fans. The two cycles of London symphonies that he wrote while in the capital city are revolutionary in terms of structure, instrumentation, harmony, etc.

How can we give someone like him due acclaim? With an honorary doctorate, of course. It was the British music historian – and a good friend of Haydn – Charles Burney, who successfully nominated the composer for that distinction from the prestigious University of Oxford:

"On the 8th of July in the year of the Lord 1791, there was reason for a convocation (…) so that other academic matters could be handled. It has pleased the Lord Vice Chancellor that Joseph Haydn, a man most celebrated and most skilful in musical matters, be admitted to the degree of Doctor of Music."

We know from Haydn’s writings that the composer attached great importance to his academic degree. After that time, he would sign various important documents as ‘Doctor of Music’. Although he admitted in his letters that he ‘looked very foolish in his academic gown (..) But I have much to thank this doctor’s degree in England; indeed, I might say everything; as a result of it, I gained the acquaintance of the first men in the land and had entrance into the greatest houses'.

But even a superstar like Haydn certainly was not handed such a title lightly. Candidates for an honorary doctorate had to demonstrate their expertise by presenting an innovative piece of music to the jury. In Haydn’s case, this was a short menuet and trio al rovescio, that is, a work structured as a palindrome. The Oxford Symphony was indeed on the programme of a gala concert that was part of the ceremony, but it had been written in 1789.

Symphony No. 92 has a prominent place in the immense catalogue of Haydn’s works because it is the last symphony before Haydn started writing the twelve ‘London’ symphonies. Yet the dividing line in musical terms is not so radical. The composer had already begun stretching the boundaries of what is possible and admissible since his Paris symphonies of 1786.

The 92nd begins like most of the symphonies of that era, with a slow introduction. The principal theme appears only after some twenty measures, but it does serve as the source for almost all the further musical material. Haydn succeeds in developing an apparently endless stream of ideas that all spring forth from that one theme. This monotheme was truly innovative at the time. It was far more common for two or more themes to confront each other, and new material grew out of that confrontation. Even where, in the final movement of Symphony No. 92, a new theme is introduced, it is suspiciously similar to the main theme. This is the technique of inversion, or in other words: Haydn turns the notes upside down. That musical puzzle was clearly there all the time.

Drumroll, please

Symphony No. 103 has gone down in the history books for quite another reason. Here, the innovation did not wait several measures, but rumbles in the very first notes. The drumroll (Paukenwirbel) that begins the work was so unheard of at that time that Haydn’s mate Burney invoked the most divine metaphors to describe it:

"…such as were never heard before, of any mortal’s production; of what Apollo & the Muses compose or perform we can only judge by such productions as these."

It must have had a shock effect. Timpani had certainly been around for centuries, but until the late 17th century they mainly played an accompanying, accentuating role. In this period, the timpani could be tuned much faster, suddenly offering composers a vast range of new possibilities. At the French court, Jean-Baptiste Lully made wide use of that potential in his operas and ballets, and in the middle of the 18th century, composers like George Frideric Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann tuned the drums to the same pitch as the trumpets, for more rhythmic effect.

What Haydn does is entirely different. He uses the timpani as a solo instrument, and what is more, as the opener of his symphony. A commotion burst out in the hall. In The Morning Chronicle, a music critic wrote in his review the day after the première:

"Another new Overture [as a symphony is known in England], by the fertile and enchanting Haydn, was performed; which, as usual, had continual strokes of genius, both in air and harmony. The Introduction excited deepest attention..."

All in all, a big success, in other words. Haydn would therefore continue later to give the timpani a prominent role in his Paukenmesse (Timpani Mass) and in The Creation – where the drums have to be tuned at least seven times to a different pitch.

And yet, this ‘deepest attention’ was not due solely to the use of that instrument. Just as important was the way Haydn used the melody of the Gregorian dies irae motif to write a menacing bass line. The melody was often used in musical history to presage death or arouse a generally lugubrious atmosphere. It is also striking that the composition remains for several minutes on an uncertain harmonic foundation. The timpani roll is in E minor, and thus announce a work in that key, but it is not until the beginning of the cheerful Allegro movement that we find ourselves again on firm ground. These are tonal experiments that the great Romantic composers in the following century would further develop.

Lastly, Haydn uses the timpani not only for an unexpected entrance. The titular ‘Drumroll’ also plays the role of an innovative structural element. When the composer uses the rumble again at the end of the first movement, he turns the traditional structure of a symphony upside down. One would expect everything to race towards a final cadence, but by suddenly bringing back the ominous opening measures, the composer showed, even in his penultimate symphony, that he remained a pioneer in every sense.