About this Piece
Length: 25 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in E-flat, and strings
Haydn wasn't exactly the inventor of the symphony - its origin was in the world of musical theater, a spinoff of the overture played at the beginning of an opera. But he was its adventuring pioneer, and for most of his long career the symphony served as a kind of touchstone to try out new ways of captivating an audience. Haydn shaped it into a form and a medium that allowed him to negotiate his unique balance between artistically intuitive exploration and the need to entertain.
The "immortal" status of Haydn's final set of symphonies - the dozen "London Symphonies" produced as a freelance composer - is a justified testament to the brilliance of his imagination in making the symphony a study of variety within unity. Still, it tends to overshadow the rich profusion of symphonic guises Haydn assumed as his artistic identity developed. He availed himself of the resources of his patron Prince Esterházy's court orchestra, over which he presided for long decades, playing off particular strengths of his instrumentalists.
These pre-London Symphonies cover an extraordinary range, matching emotion to instrumental ensemble and formal design with all manner of investigative zeal. There are works still chugging with the momentum of the fading baroque, and others that herald the revolutionary new sound of the Sturm und Drang, bold and stark in their emotional forthrightness.
Yet always, Haydn composed with an awareness of his audience. In the case of the Symphony No. 76, written in 1782, Haydn was interested in exporting his music to a new public, casting his glance up north to England. Advertising the work as "beautiful, elegant and by no means over-lengthy," he intended this piece not for his usual Esterházy orchestra but for a possible tour abroad - though that would not materialize for another decade. In a time when violent revolution was about to intrude and topple generations of comforting certainties, these acts of pure music - unattached to the church or stage - resonate with the dignity of the 18th-century Enlightenment's quest for an ordered world.
Haydn's orchestration is relatively modest: just the basic winds, horns, and strings, no drums or trumpets. It might even be called chamber-like in dimension. Yet he wrings a maximum amount of variety from these forces, plunging in at the start with a kind of aggressive confidence that almost hints of his future student Beethoven's Eroica in the same key (including the repeated pulsing on the lower strings). A few measures in, you can't fail to hear the bassoon's solo, doubled by the second violins, rising opposite the violins' descending phrase. It's precisely because of Haydn's economical array of forces that the ear can relish such details with a crystal transparency.
For Haydn, the sonata form of a symphony's first movement (and here, last as well) is essentially about presentation of ideas, which are then spliced, dissected, expanded, and transformed within different contexts. The opening - in a way that is typical for Haydn - contains in microcosm much of the whole. It foreshadows his recurrent use of counterbalance between emerging solo voices and the energy of the whole ensemble as it erupts with a common-purpose dynamism at crucial cadences. The latter too allows for a dramatic opposition with another secret from Haydn's arsenal of surprises: his pointed use of unexpected pauses, which heightens the sense of harmonic questing during the development section.
The Adagio is the Symphony's longest movement, built from two contrasting sections. The contrasts are striking not only in the material, but in their orchestral clothing: the first, songlike, flowing, and contoured with graceful turns of phrase, is confined to the string body, which makes the reappearance of the almost-forgotten winds in the second, melancholy-laced section of long, mournful chords especially striking. In the background, meanwhile, the repeated-note accompaniment we had heard in the very opening of the symphony takes on a new guise.
The stately three-quarter dance rhythm of the minuet wouldn't be Haydn without its share of wit - but wit in the larger sense of the English essayist Joseph Addison, i.e., what simultaneously "gives delight and surprise." Haydn again plays with timing and unexpected pauses and, in the trio, with solo lines in high relief. The finale recaps some of the devices from the first movement - that churning, repeat-note accompaniment and the tricky, unexpected pauses. It's also a smiling example of Haydn's sound play, combining the earthy simplicity of its quasi-folksy main theme with the most decorative of rococo artifice.
-- Thomas May is a senior editor at Amazon.com and a regular contributor to andante.com.