Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante for London

Joseph Haydn had every reason to thank providence for his elevated position in musical life. His nearly three-decade service to the Esterházy family had brought him financial comfort, renown, and respect. Director of his own courtly private orchestra and opera company, blessed with a musically discerning patron, he was able to explore and develop in an environment which was well-nigh perfect for this most craftsmanlike and fertile of composers.

So this letter of 1790 to his friend and confidant Maria Anna von Genzinger, wife of the Esterházy physician and a fine amateur pianist, might seem at first like the griping of an ungrateful curmudgeon:

Here I sit in my wilderness – forsaken – like a poor waif – almost without human society – sad – full of the memories of past glorious days – yes! past, alas! – and who knows if those days will return again?

Joseph Haydn had grown dissatisfied with his quiet life at the Esterházy palaces -- Schloss Esterházy in Eisenstadt, the family palace in Vienna, and the mini-Versailles Eszterhàza in what is now western Hungary -- having had become increasingly aware of the possibilities opening up for musicians in the burgeoning Enlightenment of the 1780s. He had made a close musical friend and colleague in Wolfgang Mozart, a relationship between two titans based on mutual respect and an obvious affectionate bond reaching from older to younger generation. His compositions were celebrated throughout Europe (even the Americas), his name was known to music-lovers everywhere, and should he have wished to set off on his own he could have written his own ticket wherever he wished to go.

He was restless, dissatisfied, ambitious for new experiences; perhaps you could call it the Thirty-Year Itch.

Yet he remained firmly in his Esterházy service, bound by strong ties of loyalty to his patron Nicolaus and the demands of his own integrity. However, fate stepped in with Nicolaus's death in September 1790; the successor to the Esterházy throne, Paul Anton, considered his father's massive musical chapel an unnecessary expense and dissolved the lot, freeing Haydn to go where he wished, while paying him the handsome annuity arranged by Nicolaus Esterházy, who even in death continued to see to the well-being of his honored kapellmeister.

Haydn might have retired altogether; he was nearing his sixtieth year and had no financial worries to speak of. But Johann Peter Salomon, violinist and impresario extraordinaire intervened, bringing Haydn to London for two successive stays, the first from 1791- 92, the second in 1794 - 95. During those two trips Haydn wrote a number of the works for which he is best remembered, in particular the twelve "London" symphonies (Nos. 93 - 104).

Joseph Haydn in 1792

For that first London trip Haydn also wrote a Sinfonia concertante, a compositional genre that had developed during the Viennese Classical era and would persist into the early Romantic. Similar in instrumentation to a Baroque concerto grosso in that a group of soloists is set in partnership with a larger orchestral group, the sinfonia concertante (or symphonie concertante in French) is closer to the Classical rather than Baroque concerto, especially in its treatment of the soloists and in its forms.

In the sinfonia concertante, the grouped soloists are generally given the bulk of the material, while the orchestra acts in a largely supportive role; contrast that to the concerto grosso in which the solo concertino group alternates with the orchestral tutti, and in which the orchestra proper is likely to present the primary melodic ritornello materal.

Structurally, the sinfonia concertante partakes of Classical forms, leaving the older ritornello form behind and embracing the new sonata form of the times, especially the so-called "double-exposition" form, in which the orchestra first states the fundamental materials of the movement, staying in the tonic key throughout, followed by a repeat, this time with the soloists, of that fundamental material, now modulating to a secondary key -- a critical feature of classical sonata form.

Londoners had become accustomed to the sinfonia concertante due to the energy of Johann Christian Bach, whose many examples stand as some of the finest of the genre. Thus Haydn tossed his hat into the ring with his Sinfonia concertante in B-flat for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon, written for the 1792 concert series. His own student Pleyel had been making waves in the London concert scene during the same season, and quite possibly Haydn's work was a direct response to Pleyel's popular works. One gets a sense of Haydn grinning slightly and murmuring OK, hotshot, let the old man show you how it's done.

Landon (Haydn in London, pg. 536) points out that "the autograph shows that the work was composed or at least put down on paper in considerable haste and under a certain amount of stress." Haydn was a busy man in 1792, occupied with his successful concert series, writing new works at a downright astonishing rate, and even finding time to carry on a spicy love affair with a vivacious London widow.

The manuscript might have been hasty, but the work itself is full-bore, vintage Haydn, replete with inventiveness, charm, and that kicky energy that he retained even well into his old age. The London audiences loved it:

A new concertante from HAYDN combined with all the excellencies of music; it was profound, airy, affecting, and original, and the performance was in unison with the merit of the composition. SALOMON particularly exerted himself on this occasion, in doing justice to the music of his friend HAYDN.

Morning Herald, March 12, 1792

They loved it all over again in 1794:

A concertante of HAYDN'S was performed, the last movement in particular of which gave infinite pleasure, by a mixed expression of tenderness and joy; the first expressed at intervals in recitative, and latter in the melody, which was delightfully animating.

Morning Chronicle, February 25, 1794

The Haydn Sinfonia concertante remains every bit as profound, airy, affecting, original, tender, joyful, and animated in 2009 as it was over two centuries ago. Haydn's clever pairing of two string with two wind soloists allows for constantly varied combinations of sonorities, and in his treatment of the then-new genre he showed himself fully capable of not only grasping the essentials of the idiom, but coming up with new ideas of his own, as witnessed by his chamber-like treatment of the slow movement Andante and the delectable quasi-operatic violin cadenzas that interrupt the last-movement festivities.

Oddly enough, the Sinfonia concertante went into performance limbo for well over a century. However, with the Haydn revival that began after WWII, this most admirable of concerto-quasi-symphonies has re-achieved the popularity it so richly merits.

You may hear the Haydn Sinfonia concertante this forthcoming week at the San Francisco Symphony, as Bernard Labadie conducts soloists Dan Nobuhiko Smiley (violin), Peter Wyrick (cello), Jonathan D. Fischer (oboe), and Stephen Paulson (bassoon.) The dates are as follows:

  • Thursday, May 7 at 2:00 PM at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco
  • Friday, May 8 at 8:00 PM, also at Davies (followed by the informal "Off the Podium" session with Labadie and the soloists.)
  • Saturday, May 9 at 8:00 PM, at the Flint Center in Cupertino.

The program also includes Mozart's "Gran Partita" Serenade K. 390, the subject of this article.

Concert info, including tickets and program notes, may be found here.

There is no better source for Haydn's period in London than H.C. Robbins Landon's Haydn in London, Volume 3 of his massive 5-volume biography of the great Austrian composer. Probably the library is your best bet, but it can be purchased from Amazon for a cool $100.

Among recordings of the Sinfonia concertante, I'm quite fond of Helmut Muller-Brühl conducting the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, on Naxos, as well as Sigiswald Kuijken conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, on Virgin Classics Veritas. The Sinfonia is also included in the complete Haydn symphonies set from Adam Fisher and the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, currently available in the 150-CD set from Brilliant Classics, or on an album of concertos. (Incidentally, the Fisher set is also available as a standalone 33-CD volume, but for the price, you might as well spend a bit extra and buy the 150-CD set.)