It would be easy, writing about Haydn symphonies, to dwell on aspects of their musical structure or even the anecdotes relating to them (the famous story behind the “Farewell” symphony springs to mind). That is not what I want to do. I am simply setting out to present those symphonies which, having heard them once, made me want to listen to them again and again! In my last post, I focused on Symphony No 6. Numbers 7 and 8 are on my listening list, too. I can’t stress enough that there may be others in between that will bowl me over on a different day but after number 8, the next symphony I found really engaging on first hearing and want to draw attention to is number 19.
It would be wrong for me to make assumptions about what readers might already know about classical music. Hopefully, a few people might read this who know very little. With that in mind I want to deal with the basics in this post and take a moment to write about what a symphony actually is.
Most symphonies consist of four movements. It’s an interesting concept, the movement. Pieces of music in other genres tend to consist of a single span of sound. The only genres I can think of offhand where several separate pieces routinely make up a whole are classical music and the stage musical.
The movements of a classical piece are not unlike the acts of a play. For example, a slow movement may be written to be heard in the context of the fast movement that precedes it and so on. The different moods of the movements in a work set up a musical narrative. In Symphony 19, the first movement, in a bright major key, is followed by a darker second movement, written in a minor key.
As the symphony evolved, composers settled on the convention of writing four movements: an opening fast movement, a slow movement, a dance movement (a minuet) and a “finale”. It’s a useful convention, as it prompts the composer to include everything that the piece needs to have to be considered a “symphony”. Symphony 19 was an early symphony and comprised of only three movements.
A symphony is, literally, a “sounding together”. However, by the time the four movement pattern was established it had become far more than that. A classical symphony, like a Shakespeare play, aims to embrace the whole breadth of human experience.
To generalize in what I hope is a useful way, the first movement, the most involved, combines depth of feeling with complexity of thought. The second, a slow movement, tends to focus on the emotional. The third, a dance, focuses on the physical. The fourth, usually fast, brings the work to an affirmative conclusion. This is obviously too simple: I’m trying to reduce the symphony to a formula, such as a detective writer might resort to and like a good book, a good symphony will obviously exceed the boundaries of any formula. Incidentally, of the four, my description of the fourth movement is the least helpful. The fourth is often considered the hardest to write, too: composers talk of the “fourth movement problem”. A composer of symphonies has to find his or her own way of solving it, sometimes contriving to deny the listener the affirmation they expect.