The Festive C-Major Symphony


Austrian Catholic music in the eighteenth century was far less decorously somber than one might imagine. A richly-woven tapestry of musical idioms and styles included a happy tradition of festive, dance-like C Major masses, typically orchestrated incorporating timpani, high horns, and trumpets. Unlike the reverent works by one of the established old-school liturgical composers such as Antonio Caldara, these masses from the younger generation of composers tended to be flamboyant, noisy, even slightly militant at times—invigorating examples of the rapidly changing times in which they were created.


Good examples of such masses by well-known Austrian composers include Mozart’s Missa Longa in C Major K. 262 and Beethoven’s 1807 C Major Mass Op. 86 (dedicated to Prince Nicholas Esterházy). It should be mentioned that not all masses in C Major are necessarily “festive” works—for example, Mozart’s Coronation Mass K. 317 is not such a work, although it is in C Major.


It would seem that the liturgical tradition gave rise to a corresponding tradition in symphonic writing, as the symphonic genre grew and developed during the second half of the eighteenth century. H.C. Robbins Landon—one of the most important modern-day scholars of the era—speculated that perhaps these C Major symphonies were actually intended for performances during church services. (For those who might find this slightly shocking: be advised that symphonies were regularly performed during church services in 18th century Austria. Symphonies were performed in monasteries as the monks went about their daily business. In fact, symphonies appear to have been performed just about everywhere and everywhere during this time.)


Landon’s conjecture regarding the target venues has not met with a great deal of scholarly enthusiasm, although there might be individual instances in which a particular symphony was played in a church setting. There are some symphonies which were most definitely not targeted for church services—Haydn’s symphonies 48 and 97, for example. (Symphony 48 was written for the Empress Maria Theresa’s visit to Eszterháza in the 1770s, while Symphony 97 is one of the ‘London’ symphonies, written in 1793.)


The distinguishing features of the opening movements of C Major festive symphonies are: 1) the use of trumpets, timpani, and high horns, 2) propulsive rhythm, and 3) heraldic, fanfare-like melodies. The symphonies tend to range from 3 to 4 movements, with the last movement usually similar in style to the first.


Instrumentation in many of Haydn’s earlier festive symphonies is a bit unsettled, in particular concerning the use of C alto horns, trumpets, and timpani. C alto horns are crooked to have approximately the same range as the trumpet. They play in the octave in which they are notated rather than the customary octave below, and sport a penetrating, burnished tone. In the absence of such horns, one might substitute trumpets although the sonorities change quite dramatically. An occasional symphony might specify the use of both, such as Haydn’s symphonies 33 and 56. Some of the early Haydn symphonies may not indicate either trumpets or timpani in the earliest manuscripts; later manuscripts or sets of parts may well include them. As a result, conductors may well need to choose just which instruments will play in any particular symphony.


For Haydn, the festive symphonies are: 20, 32, 37, 33, 38, 41, 48, 50, 56, 60, 63, 69, 82, 90, and 97. Note that the numbering of the Haydn symphonies is not a reliable guide to the order of their composition: Symphony 37, for example, is almost certainly the second symphony that Haydn composed. Unreliability aside, the numbers do make clear that Haydn wrote relatively few of these festive works later in his career (82, 90, and 97 are the only three symphonies from the 1780s onwards in the list), with the bulk of them concentrated in the 1760s and early 1770s.


Probably Haydn’s outstanding compositions in this tradition are symphonies 41, 48 (“Maria Theresia”), 56, 82 (“L’Ours”), 90, and 97. Some of the earlier works are fascinating in and of themselves—Symphony No. 37 is one of the earlier examples of Haydn’s signature ability to spin most of his melodic materials out of one simple idea, whereas Symphony No. 33 boasts one of the most ambitious structures of his early years. Symphony No. 60 is nicknamed “Il Distratto”, due to its origin as background music to a play by the same name; it is the only 6-movement symphony in Haydn’s output.


Mozart contributed only a few specimens: Symphony No. 9 K. 73, No. 34 K. 338, and of course No. 41 K 551 (“Jupiter”), which is in many ways the apotheosis of the genre. Not only does the “Jupiter” symphony represent the grandeur and elevation of the festive symphony at its best, but its celebrated polyphonic finale originated as a Credo for a never-written Mass, and so rounds out the genre’s historical roots rather nicely.


There are some interesting specimens by some of the lesser-known figures of the era. The pre-Classical Viennese composer Georg Christoph Wagenseil shows us the genre in its first early flowering in a C Major symphony WV 351, dating from around 1750. The under-appreciated Johann Baptist Vanhal left us an absolutely splendid example of the genre in his Symphony In C “Il Comista”, Bryan C1. Joseph Haydn’s younger brother Michael also gave us a delightly festive work in his Symphony 39. (All of these works are available in modern recordings.)


But one of my favorite examples comes from Muzio Clementi—yes, that Clementi. The fellow who wrote those tinkly little sonatinas that plague intermediate-level piano students, the same supervirtuoso Clementi who just may have bested Mozart in a piano-playing competition. (Clementi is one of the very few non-Austrian composers to write one of these festive works, but he did spent a goodly portion of his career in Austria.) His so-called Symphony No. 1—although it’s actually not his first—has been preserved only in fragments. It was ‘restored and completed’ by 20th-century Italian composer Alfredo Casella and published by Ricordi in 1938. It would seem that in the process of restoration, Casella re-orchestrated the work to some extent, and I rather suspect added quite a bit of interior figuration to boot. Whether it’s an authentic early 19th century orchestral sonority or not (oh, it can’t be), it provides a modern-day listener with a truly off-the-beaten-path jewel.