Skip to page content

About this Piece

Composed: 1793

Length: 30 minutes

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

By the early 1790s Haydn was an independent operator, after more than three decades of remarkably fruitful employment by the Austro-Hungarian Esterházy family. The most beguiling post-Esterházy offer, coming after his nominal retirement, was from Johann Peter Salomon, the German-born, London-based violinist, conductor, and impresario who offered Haydn, for a handsome consideration, the commission to write a dozen symphonies for his London concerts.

With the first six, Nos. 93-98, presented between January of 1791 and the spring of '92, Haydn scored a success the likes of which London had not seen since Handel's greatest operatic triumphs; whereupon Haydn returned to Vienna, to complete the second set of six and for relief from the London social whirl, which had for over a year engaged a composer hardly accustomed to such attention from the more reserved (and class-conscious) Austro-Hungarian aristocracy.

In February of 1794, he returned to a breathlessly expectant London with the six final symphonies, of which the next-to-last is this work in E-flat, No. 103 in the Hoboken catalog.

On March 2, 1795, the day after the tumultuously received first performance of No. 103, the Morning Chronicle reported: "Another new Overture [as a symphony was called in England] by the fertile and enchanting Haydn was performed, which as usual, had strokes of genius, both in air [melody] and harmony. The Introduction excited the deepest attention, the Allegro charmed, the Andante was encored, the Minuet, especially the Trio, was playful and sweet and the last movement was equal, if not superior, to the preceding."

By "Introduction" the critic was presumably referring to both the stunning intrada for timpani solo which gives the symphony its nickname, "Drumroll," and the 39 harmonically uncertain measures that follow: music that foreshadows the Romantic spirit of succeeding decades. The tonic doesn't make itself felt until the entry of the swinging Allegro.

In the slow movement tension is created by contrasting two thematic groups that differ melodically and harmonically, minor against major. There is the further appeal of a gentle violin solo in the C-major tune, its innocence shattered by a fierce C-minor outburst from the orchestra.

The Minuet starts as a sturdy, well-behaved dance, but soon begins to explore darker harmonic regions, while the complex polyphony of the Trio moves it well beyond the polite confines of the ballroom.

The Finale is a marvel of energy and concision, its main theme an example (the most famous of which, although clearly not the first, is the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony) of what a composer of genius can accomplish with only four notes. Haydn, however, delays his main theme with a startling horn call, which then engages in a contrapuntal tussle with the main theme. That four-note motif is subsequently heard in numerous guises until it is ultimately combined with the horn call - now stated by all the brass and woodwinds - in a riotously brilliant, galloping conclusion.

- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.