Friday Performance Pick – 136

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 (Farewell)

I started this series almost three years ago with a work by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In between that first “performance pick” (No. 1) and this one (No. 136), Haydn has been missing. It confirms, I think, our tendency to take his music for granted.

Haydn’s sits astride the Enlightenment era, and his music exemplifies all the qualities that we call “classical.” His long career matches closely the dates musicians assign to the “Classical era,” spanning the time between Bach’s death and Beethoven’s breaking of the classical mold. Haydn gives us the paradigm, and we spend our energies examining the ways in which Mozart and Beethoven diverged from it.

In his lifetime he became “Papa Haydn.” Sometimes the term seems derogatory, casting him as an old fogey in contrast to the bolder Mozart. But the name arose from the musicians who worked under him, and the Farewell Symphony (composed in 1772) tells the tale. The musicians were stuck in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s remote Esterháza palace and wanted to get back to their families in Vienna. Rather than making a direct appeal on their behalf, Haydn sent the message more diplomatically with an unusual twist in his music.

The classical symphony typically had four movements. The first and last had a fast tempo and in between were a slow movement and a dance movement (usually a minuet). The Farewell Symphony follows this pattern but has a unique ending. In what might be considered either an extra (slow) movement or a long coda, the musicians gradually leave the stage. It was anything but conventional, and it was the kind of gesture that endeared Haydn to those who worked with him. They say the prince got the point and let the musicians go home.

Haydn achieved remarkable fame, especially for someone employed at court. He had been trained as a chorister at St. Stephen’s in Vienna. But he had few prospects as he entered adulthood. Before obtaining his very secure and prominent position with the Esterházy family, he mostly taught himself composition. His compositions and entrepreneurial efforts finally brought him to the attention of major patrons around 1760.

Haydn died in May 1809 in Vienna as Napoleon bombarded and conquered the city. The convergence of those two events might mark the true end of the Classical era.