Haydn’s Morning Symphony with Jonathan Cohen
- May 19
Charles Avison was a British composer, organist and writer who worked mainly in the northern city of Newcastle. He gained insight into Italian styles through his lessons in London with the composer Francesco Geminiani, a former student of both Scarlatti and Corelli. As the director of a concert series, Avison had ample opportunities to write and program works in the popular concerto grosso format, which emerged from Rome around 1700. After the landmark publication of Corelli’s Opus 6 concertos in 1712, countless imitators produced scores for multiple soloists and orchestra—not least Handel, who composed 12 of his own “grand” concertos that he published in London in 1739.
Avison published his most famous set of concerti grossi in 1744. He borrowed the structure from Corelli, employing a solo group of two violins and cello within an ensemble of strings and basso continuo (the shared bass part for some combination of harpsichord, cello, bass or other low instruments). For the actual musical material, Avison mined the keyboard sonatas of his teacher’s other main teacher, Scarlatti, whose popularity in England spiked after a major publication appeared in 1738.
The Concerto Grosso No. 5 in D Minor (after D. Scarlatti) uses a typical Italian structure of four movements, organized slow-fast-slow-fast. Scarlatti’s original keyboard sonatas each comprised a single movement, so Avison mixed and matched according to his own tastes to form the larger compositions, sometimes altering the keys or tempos. The source of this concerto’s opening Largo, in a pulsing prelude style, is unknown. The next Allegro was transposed from a lower key, and subtle adjustments to the phrases and inner voices show that Avison’s work was more than mere orchestration. Both this movement and the closing Allegro appeared in Scarlatti’s 1738 collection printed in London, so the tunes might have been familiar to the aficionados in Avison’s audience.
Aaron Grad ©2017
J. D. Zelenka was born just a few years before Telemann, Bach and Handel, and the Czech musician’s career in Germany overlapped with his more celebrated peers. After studying and working for a time in Prague, Zelenka earned a position in 1710 as a bass player for the royal chapel in Dresden, Germany. Travels to Italy and Vienna enriched his skills as a composer, and by the early 1720s he was creating highly original scores in both sacred and secular genres.
In 1723, Zelenka accepted an invitation to return to Prague, where he presented a much-touted melodrama to celebrate the coronation of the new King and Queen of Bohemia. He composed the Sinfonia in A Minor during that visit to Prague, and likely it was performed amid the royal festivities.
The fast opening movement serves as an overture in the manner of an Italian Sinfonia, the local term for an opera overture, while the featured solo passages for oboe and violin reference another Italian tradition, the concerto grosso. (We could also see this work as a harbinger of the Sinfonia concertante, a form of concerto for multiple soloists that flourished 50 years later.)
The Andante second movement reduces the forces to an intimate chamber ensemble of oboe, violin, bassoon and basso continuo. The remainder of the work has the character of a French dance suite, beginning with a selection in the tempo of a Gavotte. Zelenka also labeled this section Capriccio, an Italian term used to indicate music of a capricious, whimsical nature, and he used that same descriptor again for the next movement with its fanciful alterations between songlike Andante phrases and Allegro antics. This highly varied composition ends in a French manner with a pair of Minuets.
Aaron Grad ©2017
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the second surviving son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the godson of Telemann. After studying in his native Leipzig, C.P.E. Bach secured his first major job in 1738 with the prince-elector of Brandenburg, who was soon crowned King Frederick II of Prussia. Bach mainly served as a harpsichordist—including frequent chamber music sessions with the multi-talented “Frederick the Great” on flute—but those responsibilities dropped off sharply with the start of the Seven Years War in 1756. Bach used that time to cultivate private patrons, and the symphonies he wrote in the next several years would have been useful fare for entertaining aristocrats.
Bach wrote this Sinfonia in E Minor amid a sea change in musical style: The ornate polyphony practiced by his father and godfather was falling out of fashion, supplanted by clean lines and crisp contrasts. (This transformation touched all art forms, like how the decadent palaces and cathedrals typical of Baroque architecture gave way to the ordered columns and precise proportions inspired by Classical Greece.) Borrowing the three-part structure of an opera overture—Sinfonia, in Italian—Bach laid the groundwork for the symphony as we know it today.
This minor-key Sinfonia exemplifies the “sensitive style” (empfindsamer Stil) associated with C.P.E. Bach. The fast first movement encompasses a wide range of strongly-felt and clearly delineated emotions, from nervous unisons to joyous swoops, a sound made all the more impactful when Bach later added flutes, oboes and horns. The central slow movement weaves lovely fluid melodies, and again the architecture is open and transparent, the contrasting sections set off by full stops. There are ample details in the dancelike finale that show Bach’s lasting debt to the orchestral suites crafted by his father, although the jokey delay on an unresolved dissonance is a thoroughly modern touch.
Aaron Grad ©2017
In 1761, the 29-year-old Joseph Haydn received a lucrative job offer from Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, the head of one of Austria’s richest and most powerful noble families. During his first five years as Vice-Kapellmeister, Haydn was responsible for putting on concerts with the world-class private orchestra at his disposal, leading him to compose about two dozen symphonies along with various concertos and other instrumental works.
His first Esterházy symphonies were a trilogy connected to times of day—“Le matin” (Morning), “Le midi” (Noon) and “Le soir” (Evening)—an idea that may have been suggested by Prince Paul Anton. The work cataloged as Symphony No. 6 was probably closer to Haydn’s tenth, chronologically. In some regards, the music preserves the established Baroque style, particularly in the use of concertante solo instruments, as in a concerto grosso. But we can also recognize aspects of Haydn’s symphonic voice that are as strong here as they are in the final examples he wrote for London, 30-plus years and nearly 100 symphonies later.
Like most of those London Symphonies, the Morning symphony opens with a slow introduction. The first violins enter alone, then the second violins join in harmony, and soon the entire orchestra surges to a bright climax: The sun has risen.
The fast body of the movement enters with a melody played by flute alone, the first of many solo passages that show this symphony to be a descendent of the concerto grosso as much as the operatic sinfonia. The slow movement, scored without winds, shines the spotlight on the solo violin and cello.
The Menuet, a court dance marked by its stately pulse of three beats per measure, was a staple of the French dance suite. Haydn was among the first to add this extra movement to the Italian sinfonia template, one of the innovations that earned him the nickname “father of the symphony.” Even in this early example, the finale shows Haydn’s typical panache, like how he turns a simple melodic gesture of a rising scale into a pervasive, energizing accompaniment figure.
Aaron Grad ©2017