Haydn’s Surprise Symphony with Jonathan Cohen
- May 18
Haydn’s marvelous Symphony No. 94 derives its nickname, “Surprise,” from its second movement’s famous jack-in-the-box-like theme: a melody as simple as a nursery rhyme, whispered softly by the strings, then more softly still, fading away…before punctuated by a fortissimo orchestra hit. (Haydn predicted, “This will make the ladies jump.”)
The Surprise Symphony’s nickname—assigning, as it does, the entire work’s fame to one gesture—might ultimately represent an injustice, as if to suggest that all of the work’s brilliance is contained in those sixteen measures. On the contrary, a startling freshness permeates the entire Symphony from beginning to end. (That fortissimo chord, absent from Haydn’s first draft, moreover, appears to have been an afterthought.)
A modern approach to orchestration is evident immediately from the first movement’s slow introduction, casting the winds and strings in resplendent dialogue. (Johann Peter Salomon, the concert impresario who commissioned Haydn’s last symphonies, offered orchestral forces far beyond what Haydn had at his disposal in Eszterháza, both in size and virtuosity; the composer’s giddiness is audible.) The subsequent Vivace assai is marked by spirited melodic invention.
Nor is the famed fortissimo even the second movement’s most remarkable feature. Here, Haydn offers a set of variations somewhat unconventional in their conception, for the theme remains intact in each. Rather than melodically re-imagining the theme, Haydn transfigures it by means of harmony, texture, and pulse. The movement’s climax prefigures Beethoven, conjuring majesty from such modest materials, before ending (surprisingly) in a delicate pianissimo. A Menuetto of unusual splendor precedes a finale as winsome as it is diabolically clever, like the beguiling street performer who makes off with your watch.
The Surprise is the second of Haydn’s valedictory set of twelve “London” Symphonies, composed between 1791 and 1795, on commission from the aforementioned Salomon. Hearing of the death of Haydn’s employer, Nicolaus Esterházy, in 1790, Salomon pounced, engaging Haydn—by this time, Europe’s most celebrated musical figure—for his upcoming London season. (“I am Salomon of London and have come to fetch you. Tomorrow we will arrange an accord.”) This, the first of two tours to England for Haydn, was a resounding success. Charles Burney, present at Haydn’s London debut, reports that “the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever, to my knowledge, been caused by instrumental music in England.”
Patrick Castillo ©2014