Monday, October 7, 2013

Haydn: Symphony No. 47 in G major, "Palindrome"

Unlike Beethoven, who could take a couple of years to write a symphony, Haydn would write several a year. The next symphony I want to look at was written in 1772, the same year as the "Farewell" Symphony. I'm not going to go into quite the same detail with this one as I did with the "Farewell", but not because it doesn't deserve it! Every Haydn symphony seems to have its unique virtues and I suspect that the ones that don't get played as often actually deserve as much attention as the ones that do.

One thing that I become more and more aware of as I wander through the Haydn symphonies is how beautifully integrated the melody, harmony and rhythm are. The rhythmic creativity of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is often neglected, but is actually crucial to the whole musical concept. Take the first movement to the Symphony No. 47. There is a particular mood created by all the musical elements that is, as all musical moods, not quite describable in words, but the words "jaunty" and "sauntering" come to mind. Here is the opening:

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This is a twelve-measure phrase that comes in six two-measure groups. You might note that we have not had an opening phrase quite like this before in the symphonies. In fact, every single opening phrase we have looked at has been different. What is unique about this one is how deliberately it unfolds the harmonies: two measures of tonic, two measures of subdominant, two measures of, probably, submediant (incomplete, so hard to be sure), then four measures of dominant 7th ending on tonic, full cadence. What makes this progression interesting is the way Haydn piles up the 2nds. This focus on the 2nd comes again a few phrases later where he sets up a sequence with a chain of 2nds:

The movement unfolds rather as might be expected until here:

This comes right where we might expect the recapitulation. But instead of G major, Haydn gives us G minor! And he underlines it by recapitulating the whole first part of the exposition in minor. Then, where the triplets came in in the exposition, he just switches back to G major and continues the rest of the recapitulation as if nothing had happened. In some pieces we might have a false recapitulation that comes too early or in the wrong key, but this seems to be a real recapitulation--just in minor, not major which breaks all the rules, of course. You may have noticed that Haydn doesn't follow the rules and this is for the simple reason that all these supposed "rules" about sonata form date from the 19th century and later. They are supposed to be codifying the standard practices of people like Haydn, but it is pretty obvious that there is no such thing as "standard practice" for him. Every really good piece of music is unique...

The lovely second movement is like garlands of harmonic flowers that keep twining around one another. It begins with a theme thirty measures long--here is the first part:

There follow four variations. The first three are in increasing note-values: first sixteenths, then sextuplet sixteenths and thirty-seconds. The fourth variation returns to the eighth notes. Everything comes to a halt, there is an unexpected D minor chord--an echo of the unexpected G minor in the first movement as this movement is in D major, then a few more garlands and the movement is over.

The third movement, a minuet and trio, is why this symphony is nicknamed "Palindrome". As you know, the term comes from language where a palindrome, such as the phrase "Able was I, ere I saw Elba", is the same read forwards or backwards. Haydn writes the minuet and trio so that the second half of each is the same as the first half played backwards. Here is the complete score:

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This is not quite as difficult as it seems. You just have to make sure that everything you write makes sense going in either direction! Haydn gives it a bit more edge with the dynamics. For example, the first part of the minuet, read forward, has fortes on the downbeats of the antepenultimate and penultimate measures. In the backwards version, these dynamic accents stress the third beat instead. Both work, but have a different effect. So, just to be clear, how you perform this is you play the minuet as written through twice. That's the first half. Then you play the minuet backwards twice, that's the second half. Then you do the same with the trio and then repeat the minuet. Here is how it sounds:

The last movement is so fast it is performed one beat to the bar: what I mean is that the conductor just needs to beat once for each measure. The whole movement is based on this theme which is like a seed from which everything else grows:

The whole effect is of a brilliant, intense, hard-driving juggernaut.

Now let's listen to the whole symphony. Here is Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music:


Anonymous said...

That "palindrome" movement is just wonderful. For me, this is a great example of compositional complexity that is still musical, rather than it being a technical exercise.

Bryan Townsend said...

Haydn was always a very practical musician. It is only since the 20th century that we have composers that seem to write music of such abstract complexity that most listeners can't fathom what is going on.