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About this Piece

Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: November 24, 1934, Otto Klemperer conducting.

On September 28, 1790 Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, Haydn’s employer of 28 years, died and, to put it bluntly, his death couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. Haydn was by this time esteemed throughout Europe, well paid and respected in his position as Kappelmeister at the Esterházy court, and at the height of his creative powers. Yet, for all this, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his position, and was anxious to move on. In short, he was tired of being, to borrow a phrase from his younger contemporary English poet William Blake, a “mental traveler.” His periodic stays in Vienna and the circle of friends surrounding him at the home of Marianne von Genzinger (not to mention his musical evenings with Mozart), where high level musical performances and intellectual banter took place, whetted his appetite for the kind of freedom only a major cultural center could offer.

Haydn’s thirst for this stimulating cultural atmosphere, and the isolation he felt back at Esterháza, are well documented in his correspondence with Marianne von Genzinger: “Well, here I sit in my wilderness; forsaken, like some poor orphan, almost without human society… I found everything at home in confusion; for three days I did not know whether I was Kappelmeister or ‘Kappel-servant’,” and later, “I am doomed to stay at home… It is indeed sad always to be a slave… I am a poor creature.”

It must have come, then, as an even greater relief when Prince Anton Esterházy (not a great lover of music) on succeeding his father Nicolaus immediately dismissed all the musicians, excepting Haydn and a few instrumentalists. Haydn was given a pension and held nominally in service, but for all practical purposes he was finally free to do as he pleased. He promptly departed for Vienna.

Soon after his arrival, a stranger appeared at Haydn’s door and rather directly introduced himself and his purpose: “My name is Salomon. I have come from London to fetch you; we shall conclude our accord tomorrow.” As it turns out, it was the deal of a lifetime. Among other things, Haydn agreed to compose a new opera for the king’s theater and six new symphonies, for a total of 600 pounds. Of course Salomon, violin virtuoso, composer, and now business man, did equally well for himself, for it was his own series of subscription concerts for which he now engaged Haydn. The first series of concerts in London took place during the years 1791-92. Haydn created for this series the “London” Symphonies Nos. 93-98. It was for the second series of concerts for the 1794-95 season that Haydn composed Symphony No. 103 in E-flat, the “Drum Roll.”

Beginning with Symphony No. 92 in G major, “Oxford” (1789), Haydn began not only to expand the orchestral forces to include two of each wind instrument, but also to enlarge the dimensions of the individual movements, and hence, the form itself. Nearly all his late symphonies begin with slow introductions that are not simply large upbeats to the Allegro proper, but fully formed, self-contained entities that nonetheless point beyond themselves to the main body of the movement. Other characteristics of these late symphonies (all evident in Symphony No. 103) are the increasing expressivity of the wind writing (à la Mozart), the freeing of the cello from doubling the bass, and most importantly as a consequence of the above, the vast spacing of chords and the musical and acoustical depth that contribute to a grandeur of sonority.

The subtitle of Symphony No. 103, “Drum Roll,” is derived from the timpani cadenza that opens the first movement. It leads into the slow introduction of a unison melody, stated in low strings and bassoon and eventually taken up by the violins. The majesty of the introduction gives way to folk-like rusticity in the Allegro. The introduction returns just before the end of the movement as if to dispel all gaiety, but only momentarily; the Allegro resumes and dances its way to the end of the movement.

The Andante is a variation movement consisting of two themes, two keys (C minor and C major), and a shared melodic F-sharp (raised fourth degree of the scale) that, in the C major theme suggests the Lydian mode, which in turn suggests a folk origin for the melody.

The key of E-flat returns with the Minuet. The F-sharp of the previous movement returns briefly (in the enharmonic equivalent of G-flat) as a subsidiary key. This harmonic treatment is a fine example of Haydn’s long-range attempts to integrate all movements into one organic whole.

The fourth movement (a quasi rondo), is mono-thematic, beginning with a brief melodic statement in the horns which, upon repetition, becomes a counterpoint to the principal subject stated in the first violins. The movement then becomes a tour de force of Haydn’s consummate contrapuntal craft.

Haydn’s ability to balance mystery with earthiness by integrating the two on a higher formal level, and his masterful use of time-honored contrapuntal devices controlled by the dramatic harmonic tension of late-18th-century sonata form, ranks him beside Mozart as one of the superlative masters of musical art in that, or any, era.

Steven Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is also a lecturer in music theory at California State University, Long Beach.