Skip to page content

About this Piece

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote his E-minor Symphony in about 1771 for the Esterházy court orchestra, where he directed music for many years. Like most of his symphonies in those years, it has come to be associated with the artistic movement known as Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress” is the usual translation, but Drang might also be rendered “longing” or “impulse”), which manifested itself in music through emotion-intensifying devices: increased dissonance and chromaticism, driving rhythms that are often pushed by accompaniments off the beat, and use of minor keys. Haydn, after writing no symphonies in minor keys before 1767, wrote seven minor-key symphonies between 1767 and 1773. Both the brusque opening motif of the E-minor symphony, and the yearning song that follows it, are hallmarks of the new emotional style, which laid the foundation for what we call Romanticism and began the trend toward the symphony as drama that continued into the 20th century.

Haydn often pushed the minuet far beyond its original character as a dance. The main section of the second movement (like all minuets, it is in A-B-A form) is a canon at the octave, with the bass instruments playing exactly what the violins play, an octave lower and three beats later. The violas, oboes, and horns are freer agents, but the effect is fairly severe. The middle section, in E major, is spring to the main section’s winter.

There is no hint of storm or stress in the slow movement, also in E major. The violins are muted throughout, as they are in all the symphonic slow movements Haydn wrote in the early 1770s. The wispier violin tone allows the sound of the oboes and horns to bloom sweetly in their very simple moments in the sun. The Symphony got its “Mourning” nickname from a story that Haydn asked that the slow movement be played at his funeral. Whether the story is true or not, the movement was not, in fact, played at his funeral or at any of the memorial services during the following weeks.

The finale is about as stormy and stressed as the first movement, impressive in its unrelenting drive and singlemindedness, with the principal theme never out of the picture.

Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.