Haydn’s Morning Symphony with Jonathan Cohen
- May 19
Written in 1761, the Symphony No. 6 in D Major is the first part of a triptych whose individual pieces are titled “Le matin,” “Le midi,” and “Le soir” (“Morning,” “Noon,” and “Evening”). Although the titles suggest a programmatic concept, most of the music remains essentially abstract.
Still, “Morning” opens with one of the earliest examples of pictorial music in a Classical-period symphony. The slow introduction to the initial movement presents a musical depiction of dawn. As such, it stands as a forerunner of the less stylized, more magnificent sunrise Haydn would portray in his oratorio The Creation nearly 40 years later.
As striking as the “dawn” passage is, it is less important to the work as a whole than the extended solo passages, reminiscent of the Baroque concerto grosso, which Haydn weaves throughout the musical fabric. The Allegro that forms the main body of the first movement features a prominent role for the flute, and a conspicuous horn call signals the recapitulation.
The use of solo instruments becomes even more pronounced in the second movement. Here Haydn presents an affectionate parody of a music lesson. The concertmaster, with assistance from the principal cellist, demonstrates the nimble performance of scales, trills, and arpeggios to the rest of the strings, who emulate the leader as best they can. (This, too, foreshadows a work from Haydn’s maturity: The finale from the Sinfonia concertante in B-flat, composed during his first London sojourn, also depicts a music lesson.) The movement is framed by a prelude and epilogue in slow tempo. The latter passage, with its poignant suspensions over a “walking” bass line, achieves a sweetness recalling certain Baroque-period composers — Arcangelo Corelli, for example — who favored this device.
The third movement’s minuet again features the flute, while its central section, or “trio,” offers a remarkable duet for solo bassoon and bass. All the featured instruments are heard once more in the finale, an Allegro that closes this musical “morning” in high spirits.
Paul Schiavo ©