Thursday, October 3, 2013

Haydn: Symphony No. 22 in E flat major, "Der Philosoph"

This is a photo of one of the private concert halls of the Esterházy family, the one at Eisenstadt, now known as the Haydnsaal. It was in this hall that the next symphony was probably premiered. Bear in mind that the orchestra was still quite small, under twenty players, and it probably often outnumbered the audience, which typically consisted only of the Prince and his guests.

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In fact the performance I am going to put up today was actually recorded, by the Austro - Hungarian Haydn Orchestra conducted by Adam Fischer, in this very hall!

As a composer, one of the things I particularly admire about Haydn is, while he works within the clear harmonic framework of the Classical style, he manages to make each symphony unique. When you have written over a hundred of them, this seems even more remarkable.

The Symphony No. 22, nicknamed "The Philosopher" (on a manuscript from the 1790s, again, not coming from Haydn himself) is unique in its instrumentation which lends a particular atmosphere to the whole piece. The piece is scored for two English horns (cor anglais) about which it is said that it is neither English, nor a horn. Quite true, as the "English horn" is a tenor oboe with a particularly plangent, evocative sound. Along with the English horns are two French horns and bassoon. All of the darker-sounding winds and no others. The rest of the instrumentation is the usual string ensemble. It has been claimed, and I see no reason to doubt it, that no other symphony, out of the thousands that have been written, has ever used this instrumentation.

I'm not sure where it comes from, but Wikipedia and other sources all claim that the source of the nickname is the opening dialogue between the horns and the English horns in the first movement. And hey, philosophers are into dialogues, right? Well, maybe, but my inclination is to look rather to the timbre and mood: the dark winds combined with the pizzicato strings make the whole opening movement extraordinarily somber, which might be a good analogue for the sobriety of thought that philosophers, at least in the 18th century, were known for.

Another unusual thing, though not unique with Haydn, is the old-fashioned order of the movements:


  1. Adagio, 4/4
  2. Presto, 4/4
  3. Menuet e Trio, 3/4
  4. Finale: Presto, 6/8


This slow-fast-slow-fast is similar to the Baroque form of the sonata da chiesa, though none of the movements actually sound Baroque in their musical style, except for perhaps the first and that only if you aren't listening closely.

Let's have a look at that first movement. Here is the opening:

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At first glance, apart from the very unusual--unique!--instrumentation, this seems rather conventional. The horns are just outlining the tonic triad over two measures (they are transposing instruments in E flat) and this is answered by the English horns (also transposing, sounding a perfect fifth down) outlining subdominant/tonic, subdominant/tonic. Then the horns again with an exact repeat and the English horns answering this time with a cadential formula on the dominant which the horns extend by one measure. So, what is this? It's not a period as we don't have an antecedent phrase with a weak cadence answered by a consequent with a strong cadence. It is not very much like a sentence either as we don't get a dominant version of the theme, nor is there a 'liquidation' process. So what is happening here? This whole nine-measure opening is like a double-period in that it takes us to the dominant. But it's not a half-cadence, it is rather a modulation to the dominant. The rest of the opening section hints at some other keys (C minor, G minor) but essentially, via a new theme in the violins, just reiterates B flat major, the key of the dominant. Sorry for all this technical talk, but the thing to note is that we don't at any point, get a cadence in E flat! If nothing else, that alone distinguishes this from Baroque music. I'm not going to check around, but I'm pretty sure that Bach never wrote an opening section of a piece without ever having a cadence in the tonic key! In fact, looking over the second half, I don't see a cadence in E flat anywhere in the movement until the very last two measures.

The opening of the Presto is a complete contrast as it gives us a nice solid eight-measure phrase in E flat with a full cadence:

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The Menuet and Trio are also very conventional in phrase structure. Indeed the first half of the Menuet is a textbook period with four measures antecedent ending with a half-cadence answered by another four measures with a full cadence:



Incidentally, all these movements, including the finale, are in the key of E flat. One reason for this might simply be that keeping close to E flat and avoiding distant modulations allows full use of the two French horns, which were natural horns sounding in E flat.

The last movement is one of the earliest examples in Haydn of a "hunting finale", that is, one that recalls the origin of the horn as an instrument used in the traditional sport of the hunt, where it served as a way of communicating between the different people involved who might be spread out over a lot of ground. In Haydn's day it was still quite a fashionable sport amongst the aristocracy. This last movement is a joyous, bounding lark in 6/8 with lots of repeated notes and tunes in the winds:

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Now let's listen to the whole piece:


3 comments:

Rickard Dahl said...

Could two of the main reasons why Haydn, Mozart etc. had so many symphonies be that symphonies tended to be for less instruments and be shorter? Also Beethoven made composing more of a struggle as I think you wrote in one of your posts.

Bryan Townsend said...

It is interesting to note that while Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies, Mozart wrote only around 40 and Beethoven only nine! What happened? I think it was partly due to the very success of the genre. Haydn created such a wonderful medium for composition that a symphony, as time went on, became more and more of a grand enterprise. When he started, he just tossed them off like divertimenti. But by the time we get to Mozart, it is a very serious thing, a symphony. And Beethoven upped the ante to an amazing degree. By the time we get to Mahler, the symphony is like a whole universe that expresses the soul of Western civilization!!

Rickard Dahl said...

Yeah, the grandness of symphonies seems to have grown alot over time. I suppose composers were struggling more and more to compose more unique and grander symphonies. But as you say, when Haydn "started, he just tossed them off like divertimenti".