Back to Oxford

I’ve come across an interesting blog that is new to me, Michael Monroe’s MMmusings.

A recent post called “Saving the Best for First,” caught my attention because it alluded to a post of mine about Haydn’s Symphony no. 92, the “Oxford.” Thanks to Michael for the shout out.

As a matter of fact, my much too-wordy attempt above to summarize the beauty of 10 Mozartean seconds reminds me of reading this fine blog post by Kenneth Woods. In it, he rhapsodizes at length on the subtleties of the introduction to Haydn’s Symphony No. 92. When I read the post, I was struck by two things: 1) I know that symphony well, having been taught it and taught it several times, and while I agree that those measures are beautifully written, they’re not quite as awe-inspiring to me as they are to Woods. 2) That said, it’s by far my favorite part of that whole 4-movement symphony. I’m sure I’m guilty of a 19th-century aesthetic bias here, but it’s as if these Classical composers put some of their best drama right up front, followed by nice, elegant comfort music. (Hideous simplification, I admit.) Of course, the Romantics took that flair for mysterious scene-setting and built entire scenes out of such mystery, and I guess I’m a hopeless Romantic.

Interestingly, events affecting my valuation of that very passage of Haydn’s have continued apace since I wrote that early in the summer. Most importantly, we featured the piece on the Rose City Int’l Conductor’s Workshop this summer and my colleague, David Hoose made those same bars the primary topic of a ninety minute session on score study. If Michael feels that I overstated the “awe-inspiring” qulities of the introduction to the first movement in my original post, he would despair of me now. Fascinatingly, David spoke for all of that time in the most inspiring and fascinating detail imaginable about those same bars WITHOUT REPEATING ANY OF THE POINTS I had made in my earlier essay. When I conducted the piece again in October, I tried to go one step further and see what I could fine that was distinct from David’s analysis and my previous one, and there was plenty there. I guess I feel they’re more awe inspiring than I did before because I feel that in the last five months I’ve learned enough to be able to appreciate in greater depth what makes them so. I’m not trying to rebut Michael’s great post- just passing on a bit of personal perspective on the piece.That introduction is one of the miracles of all music- it’s pretty damn good even for Haydn, but I’m not sure I can concur that it is “by far” better than the rest ot the symphony. The body of the first movement is full of the most amazing touches, the slow movement is genuinely sublime, and the contrapuntal writing in the finale is out of this world.

Michael certainly has a great point about classical masters knowing how to grab the ear with a great introduction, and his examples of the beginnings of The Creation and Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet are hard to beat- what else does grab the ear like that?

However, (and I assume that Michael’s caveat,  “Hideous simplification”) speaks to this point, there are plenty of examples of classical works where the ending is all important- thing Mozart 41, Mozart 4th Violin Concerto, and think of the many amazing slow movements- the A Major Mozart Piano Concerto is certainly not comfort music!

Also, think of how many great Romantic pieces are possibly best known for their openings- Also Sprach, Brahms 1, Tchaik 4, Brahms Piano Quintet, Don Juan, Mahler 5, Tristan, Bruckner 4… One might even make the assertion that Wagner is one to put the best musical drama up front, followed by nasty, crazy discomfort music. Not me- I love it. 

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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