Symphony No.104 in D major

At the end of his life, at the invitation of the German violinist, composer, conductor and musical impresario – Johann Peter Salomon – Joseph Haydn came to London and lived in the English capital for a year and a half. The celebrated musician, who at that time had already composed 92 symphonies, was for the first time confronted with a new audience and new forms of concert life. That was a powerful creative stimulus for him. The triumphant success of his concerts inspired Haydn and gave him new strength, even though the composer was now in his dotage. As a result of his two sojourns in London (the second trip was even longer than the first) Haydn produced a vast amount of compositions. Among them are the famous 12 London Symphonies, the pinnacle of classical symphonism. They act as a link between Mozart’s last orchestral masterpieces and the young Beethoven’s symphonic opuses.

Symphony No. 104, in D major, is the last of the cycle. It completes not only the 12 London Symphonies but Haydn’s entire symphonic oeuvre, embodying the best features of his late style. Written in four movements based on contrasting alternation of tempo, it is filled with the joy of being and motifs from a variety of folk sources, both song and dance. The forms impress with their inventive motivic, variational and polyphonic development, they are harmonically harmonious and clear, and the sonorities of the orchestra abound with humorous effects that give it lightness and fullness. The orchestra’s composition is classical with four pairs of woodwinds, two in brass (French horns and trumpets), timpani and strings. In this form, the symphony is on the threshold of the new 19th  century, which opened with Beethoven’s first symphonies.

The first movement of the symphony begins with a majestic slow introduction (Adagio). It is written in a minor key and has a pathetic character and sombre mood – something rarely heard in Haydn’s last symphonies. The opening unisons of the orchestra with their characteristic dotted rhythm evoke associations with a mournful march. Against this background, a brief motif in the violins sounds like a bitter lament. The Adagio, forming a complete, if mythic, three-movement form, is mysteriously interrupted by a long pause… And suddenly a cheerful, typically Haydn-like image emerges – the playful, bright and danceable MAIN THEME. It dominates the entire first movement: it appears as a side theme in the tonality of the dominant , polyphonically develops in the development and returns twice, as main and side, in the reprise.

The theme of the slow second movement is bright, soft and rounded; at the beginning  only  the strings perform. It is only in its repetition that the bassoon enters: Haydn employs a typical device of bit music-making, the exposition of the theme in octave. The varied variations reveal the different possibilities of the theme. In one of them a ticking clock is heard, reminiscent of another of the composer’s London symphonies, Symphony No. 101, known as ‘The Clock’. Strikingly for Haydn’s style, a declamatory flute solo unfolds in free tempo against a florid chain of chromatic chords. The final variation features plaintive, lilting intonations and ends beautifully with a ‘golden resolution’ of the French horns in pianissimo.

The third movement, the Minuet, resembles, as in most of Haydn’s symphonies, a rough rustic dance. Everyone dances at the beginning – with tapping accentuating the last, weak time of the bar. Then the same theme sounds transparent and fluid, in pianissimo, as if a group of women were dancing. Then there are humorous interruptions of the rhythm. The minuet trio is chamber-like, individual romantic invocations can be detected and there are florid harmonic turns, while the theme, conducted in Haydn’s favourite manner (in violins and bassoon in the octave), again recalls the beat.

The finale is imbued with folk spirit and evokes direct associations with a village celebration as it is based on an authentic Croatian song, ‘Oy, Jelena’.  Playful and cheerful, it is played in the violins, then picked up by the oboe, while the drawn-out basses of French horns and cellos, bassoons and double basses mimic the sonority of the village bagpipes. As in the first movement, the place of the second theme is taken by the main theme, set out in the dominant and in a new orchestration. Suddenly the dance breaks off – there is a stark polyphonic chorale in violins and bassoon (the second side theme) which is repeated twice and has a complex, polyphonic development. The temperamental coda, however, overflows with unbridled gaiety. It was with such a picture of exultant folk dancing that the 63-year-old composer bade farewell to the symphony forever.

Symphony  No. 104 was premiered on May 4th , 1795. It was Haydn’s farewell benefit, about which the composer wrote in his diary:

“The hall was filled with a select company. Everyone was very pleased, and so was I. That evening brought me four thousand guilders’.

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