Working for the musically ravenous Prince Nikolaus Esterházy and spending much of each year at a remote country palace, Haydn acknowledged, “I was forced to become original.” One new direction he explored in the late 1760s and early 1770s was the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) aesthetic that was also cropping up in the theater, literature and artwork of the time. This tendency toward heightened emotion and drama tends to be associated with Haydn’s music in minor keys, as heard in the symphonies known by evocative names like Mourning (No. 44) and The Passion (No. 49). The same extremes of expression fueled major-key symphonies as well, not least in the symphony known by the nickname Fire. It was composed around 1768, earlier than the labeling of Symphony No. 59 would suggest. Scholars have ruled out the theory that it originated as incidental music for Der Feuersbrunst (The Conflagration), a play apparently staged at the Esterházy palace in the 1770s. It’s possible that Haydn used movements from the existing symphony as incidental music, or the nickname of Fire might have arisen purely in response to the nature of the music.
The Symphony No. 59 is fiery indeed, especially in the unusually speedy Presto first movement punctuated by shuddering bow strokes from the violins and forte blasts from the horns. The slow movement’s tempo is also faster than expected, and the key setting of A minor brings an unexpected chill to the atmosphere. The redemption of A major finally comes near the end, a transformation supported by the long-delayed entrance of the winds.
The Menuet reinforces this symphony’s major-minor split by introducing a major variant of the minor theme heard in the previous movement. The contrasting trio section slips back to A minor, its related motives sounding like ghostly echoes of the boisterous dance music. The finale, heralded by horns and oboes, bristles with the manic energy of a hunt.
Aaron Grad ©2017
Capping a decade of symphonic expansions and innovations, Beethoven returned in his Eighth Symphony to the shortest, smallest form since his First, a work patterned after Haydn’s influential “London” Symphonies from the 1790s. Still, Beethoven’s efficiency should not be confused with complacency; the central thrust of his music in this period was to distill each gesture down to its essence, whether it was the imposing “fate” motive of the Fifth Symphony or the jolly intervals and fragments that underpin the Eighth.
The Eighth Symphony begins with a thematic statement as clear and balanced as any by Mozart or Haydn, with orderly alternations of downward- and upward-moving phrases. But then, within seconds, the theme compresses into a leaping gesture that guides the way to the second theme and beyond. By the end of the exposition, the whole orchestra is leaping up and down in octaves, a gesture that carries forward into the development section. The “real” theme is buried in the basses and bassoons at the climactic moment of return, but it gets the last word at the end of a whimsical coda.
Continuing the departure of the Seventh Symphony, which replaced the typical slow movement with a faster Allegretto, the Eighth Symphony goes even further by assigning the second movement a joking quality reflected in its Allegretto scherzando tempo marking. The humor centers on a three-note motive that eventually shrinks to two notes and then just a single shudder. Having dispensed with the playfulness in the second movement, the third movement takes the form of a graceful minuet, rather than a more rambunctious scherzo.
The finale flies by at a whirlwind Allegro vivace tempo, which Beethoven specified as 84 measures per minute. In the many pulsating passages of tremolo, each note lasts not quite six-hundredths of a second!
Aaron Grad ©2018
About This Program
Artistic Partner Richard Egarr returns for his final appearance during the 2022.23 season to conduct two ebullient symphonies by Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven and an SPCO co-commission, a cello concerto by Stephen Hartke for Principal Cellist Julie Albers. Both the Haydn and Beethoven symphonies bristle with propulsive energy and harmonic surprises. The new cello concerto provides a stark contrast, of which the title, Da Pacem, comes from a Latin hymn that begins, “Grant peace in our day.”