Friday, 6 April 2012

Passionate Haydn

Haydn's Symphony No.49 in F minor has the nickname La passione ('The Passion') and was possibly composed for a Good Friday service, so it will do nicely as the next subject for a Good Friday post! 

It's an intriguing, serious piece composed in the old slow-fast-slow-fast form known as 'sinfonia da chiesa' (church sinfonia) and engages aspects of the old Baroque manner whilst also wedding them to the new 'storm and stress' style. Unusually, each of its four movements is in the home key of F minor.

The opening Adagio seemingly evokes Christ's carrying of the cross. It moves at a measured pace, its grave string lines trudging with dignity, outlining a simple theme (soon slightly elaborated). The first notes of this theme are key actors in all four of the symphony's movements, as each of their main themes grow out of it. Drooping phrases follow, the plaintive interval of a falling second (generally a minor second) prominent throughout. More urgent material, based on arpeggios, throbs like a running sore from time to time. The movement is in sonata form, its development section initially content to re-state the main theme in A major. 

After this tragic movement, the second-placed Allegro (also in sonata form) seems to express the anger of all Christians at the treatment of their saviour. It's a 'storm and stress' movement with a main theme made from a running bass and a leaping upper violin line. It is sometimes urgently syncopated and has a brief second subject whose grave contrapuntal flowering reminds us of 'the old style' again before giving way to new themes full of protest and energy. The development section jostles on before the brief contrapuntal flowering returns to take us towards an angry climax and a wind-down towards the pouncing recapitulation.

The Minuet is spacious but grave, with echoes of the preceding movement's running bass in its own bass line and leaping figures making their reappearance as the section proceeds. Its Trio section changes the key to F major and allows the oboes and horns to lead us in a pleasing country dance.

The Presto finale , a short sonata form movement, returns us to the stormy and stressful spirit of the second movement. Its string writing crackles with anguished energy, the main theme featuring more wide leaps and being cast over a slow-moving bass line. 

There's far more to Haydn than jokes and surprises.

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