Thomas Zehetmair Conducts Haydn’s London Symphony
- April 23
- April 25
Felix Mendelssohn was a legendary prodigy who created his first mature compositions, including the Octet for Strings and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while still a teenager. He performed a typical rite of passage for well-heeled young men when, at age twenty, he embarked on a “grand tour” of Europe. With extended visits to the British Isles and Italy, Mendelssohn expanded his worldview and brought home inspiration for future projects: Scotland spurred the “Scottish” Symphony No. 3 and the Hebrides Overture, while Italy prompted the “Italian” Symphony No. 4.
The genesis of the Hebrides Overture can be traced to August 7, 1829, when Mendelssohn and his traveling companion, Karl Klingemann, arrived at the Hebrides Islands, an archipelago off the western coast of Scotland. Inspired by the scene, Mendelssohn scribbled a few phrases of music that he sent home to Berlin in a letter. The next day the travelers boarded a paddle steamer bound for the island of Staffa, the site of Fingal’s Cave, which Klingemann described in a letter:
We were put out into boats and lifted by the hissing sea up the pillar stumps to the celebrated Fingal’s Cave. A greener roar of waves surely never rushed into a stranger cavern—its many pillars making it look like the inside of an immense organ, black and resounding, and absolutely without purpose, and quite alone, the wide grey sea within and without.
Mendelssohn composed his new concert overture as a birthday present for his father, under the original title of Lonely Island. After completing that first draft in Rome in 1830, he tinkered with the score and the title several more times (various drafts were known as The Isles of Fingal, Fingal’s Cave and The Hebrides) until he signed off on a definitive version in 1832.
The Hebrides Overture opens with a descending figure that cascades over spacious harmonies—the music that Mendelssohn penned that first day on the islands. The repeating motive establishes a rocking cadence like swelling waves, while the splashes of faster motion impart a snappiness suggestive of Scottish folk music. In contrast to the briny, minor-key atmosphere of the primary material, a heroic second theme rises in the cellos and bassoons in the related major key. The development section whips the minor-key material into a tempestuous frenzy, but the calm returns when the clarinets bring back the secondary theme in a tranquil new setting. The closing music rises once more into a fury, abating only in the ghostly final measures.
Aaron Grad ©2014
Haydn expert H.C. Robbins Landon has pointed out that, by coincidence, Haydn’s first and last symphonies are in the same key (D major), and laying those two works side by side highlights the astonishing distance between them. No. 1 is an aristocratic diversion for small orchestra, lasting little more than 10 minutes, intended for a handful of guests in a palace. No. 104 is a tour de force, about 30 minutes of serious music written for a large, discriminating audience in a public concert hall in London. Clearly, the public event was much more lucrative. After a lifetime in aristocratic service, Haydn made enough from that performance alone to more than triple his estate.
This symphony was the principal offering in Haydn’s last concert in London. From the first bar to the last, it is a work of unsurpassed concentration, invention and consummate mastery. Never one to squander notes, Haydn disdained composers who were spendthrift with ideas:
Once I had seized upon an idea, my whole endeavor was to develop and sustain it in keeping with the rules of art. In this way I tried to keep going, and this is where so many of our new composers fall down. They string out one little piece after another, they break off when they have hardly begun, and nothing remains in the heart when one has listened to it.
Haydn managed to “keep going” here by deriving the germinal ideas of all four movements from the quiet, unassuming opening melody. The Andante and Finale vary the falling opening phrase, while the Menuet echoes the second rising motif. Tying everything together in this way could, in uninspired hands, sound terribly arid and academic. But, as with so many things, this is a case of not what you do but how you do it. Hearing this symphony can be like eavesdropping on a brilliant mind as it tosses ideas around.
The influence of Mozart is felt in the opening bars, where stark unisons and growling timpani share something of the demonic monumentality of Don Giovanni. The energy and drive of the main body of the movement are wonderfully contrasted by the serenity of the slow movement. Beware, though! As in other London symphonies, Haydn explores an expansive and disparate landscape in a set of variations before coming to rest. The Menuet offers a bucolic and good-natured respite before plunging into the melee of the Finale, based on a Croatian folk tune from which Haydn creates a dazzling race to the finish.
Svend-Einar Brown ©2008