Tuesday, 31 July 2012

I want my ninth symphony to be like this!

Playing through the slow movement of a particular symphony ("with wallowing enthusiasm") Brahms said, "I want my ninth symphony to be like this!

The same movement of the same symphony was described in Cosima Wagner's diaries, reflecting her husband's feelings, as "one of the loveliest things ever written; and how wonderful it sounds!"

What slow movement united Wagner and Brahms in enthusiasm? The slow movement from Haydn's Symphony No.88 in G major.

I have a fond memory of this symphony myself. As a late teenager unfamiliar with much classical music I heard it on the radio while doing by filial duties and washing up after Christmas dinner and was bowled over by the whole piece. It remains a favourite Haydn symphony to this day.

It begins with an attention-grabbing slow introduction full of pregnant pauses that alternates short staccato phrases with softer ones. 

The exuberant main allegro is largely monothematic, with the second subject being a variant of the first. Most of the subsidiary themes also grow out of the main theme. The development section contains a lot of energetic counterpoint and the whole movement has a symphonic sweep that keeps the attention firmly fixed. 

That peaceful largo slow movement begins by sharing its beautiful theme between solo oboe and cello but is soon repeated with a richer accompaniment and the addition of a countermelody from the first violins. 

A later repetition of the tune is even more richly scored with first violins and flute getting the melody before returning it to the cello and oboe. As you will hear, the tune barely changes yet Haydn so artfully changes the accompanying figures that the attention never flags. There are some surprises in this movement too!

The Minuet is a breath of boisterous country air, making hay with its opening five-note figure. It also features a peasant-style trio complete with open fifths - and, most unusually, parallel fourths - played (bagpipe-style) by violas and bassoon. It is one of the composer's most delightful movements.

The finale returns to the exuberant spirit of the opening movement and is also dominated by its main theme. Again tunefulness meets counterpoint as Haydn sends his theme through a dramatic development section featuring learned canons before the movement wittily shrinks down to two notes...all the better to keep you guessing as to when the recapitulation is actually going to be begin.

If you don't know it I hope it will bowl you over too.

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