If I were to nominate one great composer for the title of 'Most Underestimated Composer' of all time it would be Haydn. As a small piece of proof for such a bold statement I offer a symphony with no special number and no helpful nickname. It's a work that few music lovers know despite being a loveable masterpiece. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Haydn's Symphony No.41 in C major.
This sort of Haydn symphony - being in C and featuring trumpets and drums - is often called 'festive'. That word certainly captures its spirit!
The opening Allegro con spirito begins with a firm chord that strongly asserts the home key of C major. This chord provides the first note of the main theme. The horns continue to assert the home key (like a drone) as the gentle phrases of the genial main theme are presented - phrase by phrase - by the strings, dipping into the dominant and back again. More assertive chords then engage in dialogue with the oboes as the horns continue to play long, sustaining notes below - both chords and oboes taking their part in the unfolding of the theme. Trumpets and drums then blaze in to back the strings and expand the theme with (arpeggio-based) fanfares and (short scale-based) flourishes ending on the dominant. A short pause ensues and then we begin again in the home key, but this time with fresh colours in the assertive chords and the oboes joining with the horns in sustaining the gentler phrases of the theme. The passage where the theme was expanded first time round is re-imagined with the strings taking the lead and playing in an agitated tremolando manner (relegating the trumpets to providing a supporting role) as they begin to make a determined bid to change the key to G major (the dominant key), which they bolster by running up and down scales over two alternating harmonies before settling on and emphasising G major. A chattering, lightly-textured new theme (based falling scale fragments on strings, with punctuating harmonies from the trumpets and horns) further consolidates this key before the lyrical, lilting but rhythmically flexible second subject (strings only) enters. The trumpets and drums then return for the short, brilliant (and loud) exposition closing theme, jubilantly in G major...and this is all just the first one and half minutes of the symphony! I hope that description captures the unerring, exciting way Haydn handles tonality, plus the way he uses orchestral colour not only for pleasing textural variety but also to help clarity his themes and his musical argument. What I haven't yet mentioned is Haydn's ingenuity when it comes to rhythm. This movement begins in 3/4 time, but try counting in that rhythm and see how soon the 3/4 time beat becomes separated from the theme - hence, a 'flexible' theme. All these subtleties are captured by the listener only half-consciously. The development section is full of drama and surprises - none of which I will spoil by describing before you discover them for yourself. There's a further dramatic surprise in the recapitulation - one that is sure to jolt you out of your expectations - which I also won't spoil for you. Note though how the oboes join the strings in playing the subject subject here. Even at this late stage in the movement new things are refreshing the parts others symphonists cannot reach. Originality, thy name is Haydn!
There's a newcomer to the symphony in the second movement Andante. The strings set out with the tune in a two-part texture with other strings. Then the newcomer - a flute - enters and the textures grow warmer and richer. This is the only movement of the symphony the flute appears in. Here it largely plays an accompanying role, but an accompanying role that stands out delightfully. The oboe sings an expressive melody before the flute completes it charmingly, innocently, to a light string accompaniment. The strings alone then gently slither along before the flute returns to bring the exposition to a warm close. There is a short development section where the slithering figure runs through a fascinating harmonic excursion based on the main theme. The strings have this section largely to themselves. This is such a melodically attractive movement which, with all those delightful touches of orchestral colour, makes it such a pleasure to hear. Isn't it wonderful?
The Minuet brings back the trumpet and drums and is one of Haydn's tuneful aristocratic dances. The trio section is especially charming though, with its use of solo violin and horns to sing the folk dance-like tune. Such inspirations are what make Haydn minuets such irresistible creations.
The Finale is a presto electrically charged by repeating notes and rapid scale figures. Trumpets and drums add their festive energy to the tremendous surge of momentum that this short but exciting movement generates. The movement is in sonata form and the development section continues the processes found at play in the exposition, spinning them through new keys, until the recapitulation begins. The final build-up to the close is pure joy. This is a fabulous movement to end one of Haydn's many, many great symphonies.
My God, I hope you like it as much as I do after all that!