Franz Joseph Haydn (1745-1809) is remembered today as one of the most prolific composers of the eighteenth century, and possibly of the whole Western music canon. He is commonly referred to as the father of both the symphony and the string quartet! Along with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, he completes the trio now known as the first Viennese School, so called for their connections to the city of Vienna, the cultural heart of Europe in the eighteenth century. Owing to both his long lifespan and his enviably stable employment conditions, Haydn’s was able to amass a prodigious compositional catalogue, including 104 symphonies, 50 concertos, 84 string quartets, 24 stage works, and 12 masses. In the 21st century, Haydn may not hold the same household name status and Mozart and Beethoven but his reputation during his own lifetime towered above them both!
The son of a wheelwright and a castle cook, Haydn’s musical talent was recognized early on, leading to his tenure as a choirboy at St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna. Following his voice break, Haydn turned to composition, eventually landing the position of Kapellmeister (Music Director) at the Esterházy court. The Esterházy family were highly prominent landowners within the Holy Roman Empire, holding properties on either side of what is now the Austro-Hungarian border. Haydn served three successive Esterházy Princes, spending the majority of his tenure going back and forth between their two primary residences, Scholss Esterházy in Eisenstadt (in modern-day Austria) and Esterháza in Fertőd (in modern-day Hungary). Upon the death of Prince Nicolaus (the second of the three Princes), Haydn’s duties were dramatically reduced, opening up the possibility of new opportunities further afield.
As Haydn’s obligations to the Esterházy family decreased, he started laying the foundations for what would eventually become an extremely lucrative career as a freelance composer. Haydn started selling his music to publishing companies all over Europe, especially in London, Paris, and Vienna. Many of his most famous and beloved works today were composed, not for his Esterházy patrons, but for an international list of publishers and a growing audience of middle-class amateur enthusiasts.
In 1785, Haydn was approached by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges with a commission for six symphonies to be performed by Saint-Georges’ orchestra, the Concert de la Loge Olympique. These works would eventually be dubbed the ‘Paris Symphonies’ and were still being performed by Saint-Georges and his orchestra in 1789 when the organization disbanded in the turmoil of the French Revolution. The two most popular of these works were Symphony No. 85, nicknamed La Reine due to the favour it was shown by Marie Antoinette, and Symphony No. 82, nicknamed L’Ours (The Bear).
The Bear Symphony (so called for the final movement’s uncanny but unintentional resemblance to the music used to accompany dancing bears, a popular type of Parisian Street entertainment), is as delightfully sassy as the preceding anecdote. The first movement opens with a bombastic hunting horn theme that is sure excite. As to be expected in a sonata form, this is the first of two main themes, the second theme wonderfully contrasting the first with its beautifully endearing quality. In the central development section, Haydn explores the more sombre expressions of the minor mode, modifying the movement’s themes to fit this change in mood. This finally gives way to a restatement of the first theme, although this time it is not quite so brash.
Movement two takes the form of a theme and variations, the standard structure for a symphonic second movement. However, this movement differs from expectation with Haydn’s use of two complimentary but distinct themes that both get developed throughout the movement. On first listen, the music sounds simple with sometimes only minimal alterations between thematic restatements. However, this is indeed the point as Haydn is subtly setting up the listener’s expectations, only to thwart them a moment later. The effect is like that of a roller-coaster ride, and equally as thrilling.
The third movement, a minuet and trio, opens with the air of courtly pretension that often accompanies the minuet style. However, this is merely what appears to be the start of a witty commentary from Haydn on the façade of courtly life. The music continuously becomes more unhinged, before returning to the opening theme as if nothing alarming had just happened. The fourth movement, another sonata-allegro form, uses a repeated motif made up of a bass drone interspersed with quick grace notes. It was this motif that had some listeners daydreaming about dancing bears. The music is so exuberantly playful that you will have no alternative but to dance in your seat. To do otherwise would be unBEARable! – Written by Kieran Foss