Skip to page content

About this Piece

Franz Joseph Haydn’s abundant catalogue of compositions is a cornerstone of what is called the “standard repertory,” a body of works which tend to be performed on a fairly regular basis by orchestras around the world. He helped to establish the symphony and the string quartet as two of the primary forms of expression for composers; he created over 100 symphonies and nearly as many string quartets. Haydn (1732-1809) also became one of the first truly international music personalities in early modern history, and helped to establish a thriving concert-going environment that was separate from the church.

To say his contributions were significant would be to understate his importance: his contributions were essential to Western music as we know it. Had he not lived to the ripe old age of 77 (in a time when someone over 40 was already beyond average life expectancy!), the symphony in particular might not have the stature in classical music that it now enjoys.

Nearing 60, already well-known throughout the Western world, and emancipated by the death of Prince Pál Antal Esterházy from his 28-year position as court composer and Kapellmeister at Esterháza (also known as the “Hungarian Versailles”), Haydn accepted an offer – and an ample fee – from Johann Peter Salomon to compose an opera, half dozen symphonies, and numerous other works to be premiered in London and conducted by the composer. Though the opera he created, Orfeo ed Euridice, was never performed in his lifetime (not until 1951, in fact), the symphonies were a huge success, resulting in his re-engagement for a half dozen more. These symphonies, all written between 1791-1795, are among the most skillfully rendered, refined, and popular works in the composer’s catalogue.

Upon his return to Vienna in 1793, just two years after the death of Mozart, Haydn wrote his Symphony No. 99, the first of the second set of “London” symphonies; it was premiered in London at the King’s Theatre in 1794.

Though he was 61 at the time of its writing, Haydn was hardly an old dog. Indeed, he was fully and ably in command of his compositional powers; he was even ready to learn some new tricks. To wit: Between Mozart and Haydn, we usually think of Haydn as the elder symphonist, but this work actually shows the likely influence of Mozart on Haydn. The younger composer was fond of the clarinet and had used it extensively in his concertos, operas, and several of his symphonies. Symphony No. 99 is the first time Haydn used clarinets in a symphony.

This symphony epitomizes the four-movement classical symphonic form which Haydn himself helped to establish. (Remember, when he first began writing symphonies nearly 40 years before, the Baroque influence in music was still widespread; harpsichords still played continuo parts in his early symphonies and flutes, bassoons, trumpets, and drums were not used very often, if at all.) The first movement begins typically, with a slow introduction (Adagio). Haydn deviates from standard practice immediately at the first major cadence, moving to a foreign key for a few moments before returning to the home key of E-flat major for lively yet reserved Vivace assai. This continual playfulness and reluctance to “stay within lines” of accustomed harmonic practice are a fingerprint of the mature composer’s style.

The jaunty first theme of the movement seems to be command the composer’s attention, but the second theme, even more perky than the first, dominates the middle section of the movement (the development) and, indeed, the rest of the movement.

The Adagio second movement carries through the harmonic amusement, being set in the relatively unexpected key of G major. Some scholars consider the first hymn-like melody, marked with the instruction cantabile (Italian for “singing” or “songlike”), to be one of Haydn’s most inspired. Listen particularly in this movement for the interplay between woodwinds – flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons – and the strings. This movement is also noteworthy because Haydn includes timpani, not ordinarily used in his slow movements.

The Menuet immediately brings to mind the graceful dance form from which it is derived, though with a few dramatic pauses to add interest and with a more boisterous accompaniment from time to time. The surprising harmonic underpinnings continue, a subtle and amusing entertainment for the harmonically inclined listeners.

The Finale further confirms the master composer’s uncommon ability to create whimsical and entertaining music within the reserved and stately court style of the classical era. Nothing too emotional, too desirous, or too upsetting here: simply orderly delight and delectation that can transport one from the untidiness of real life.

  - Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA, is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Publications Coordinator


2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: July 7, 1960, Jean Martinon conducting.