Reading Haydn from Beginning to End

“You can only analyze music from beginning to end, because the listener can’t know what they haven’t heard.”

Those words were spoken by my friend David Hoose at the RCICW a few years ago. At first, I thought “that can’t be entirely right,” but as the years go by, I can see more and more that he’s right. I might add this post script

“Or hear what isn’t in the score.”

So, let’s analyze a classical symphony. I’ll tell you which one later.

It begins with an explosion of violent energy- no slow introduction here. The first violins range across octaves with a disjunct theme, underpinned by relentless churning eighth notes in the violas, cellos and basses and syncopations in the seconds. At this tempo (Allegro assai), the combination of syncopations and eighths creates incredible tension, as the combined effect feels anything but stable. The only sense of stability comes from the phrase structure, which, at first, is predictably four-square.

But there is something else strange and menacing about this opening. It is in a most unusual key- F# minor. The appearance of that key signature tells us that this is not going to be an ordinary work- F# minor is a key that usually only appears in works of high drama, of existential crisis.

The exposition is essentially mono-thematic. The opening melody gradually morphs and evolves into something else, but we never get a clear cut sense transition to a new section or key area or a new theme, instead only the sense of departure, as the evolution of the material gradually makes the theme less and less recognizable, and the general impression more uneasy. Alongside this process of thematic evolution is a progressive breakdown of predictability in the phrase structure. While the first half of the exposition is entirely built of four bar phrases, the second section begins in the middle of a four-bar phrase and has phrases of 4, 5,1, 6, 4, 2, 4, 5 and 4 bars. No two consecutive phrases are the same length.

At the end of the exposition, the music simply disintegrates- all of that energy simply evaporates into thin air, leaving nothing but a question mark.

The development starts with a reprise of the opening, now in A major instead of F# minor. Will we see more of A major in this piece? The fact that he underlines this event with a fortissimo (a rarity in classical works and the first in the symphony) seems to point to importance of this particular harmonic turn. As with the exposition, the composer initially creates an impression of familiarity and stability- most of what we hear we have heard before, just in a different key or sequence.

Of course, surprise awaits. Somehow, the tonality works its way back to F#, but this time cadencing very strongly on F# major, a key even rarer and more rarified than F# minor. This arrival precipitates a crisis, as the music collapses again into silence. After a moment’s hesitation, a surprise- we lurch back from the edge of the tonal abyss to the cozy confines of D major and a brand new theme. It is only at this moment that we fully understand the genius of the mono-thematic exposition. The composer has saved this contrasting theme until 2/3rds of the way through the piece.

It is elegant music, and reassuring in the way it restores a sense of order, with perfectly proportioned four bar phrases. Predictable, comfortable and comforting until the theme traps itself in a sequence and extends itself into a 6 bar phrase. In a moment, all that stability disintegrates yet again, as the music drifts off into silence. Again, the music has disintegrated. The silent chasm  opens before us for longer than before, then, again, into the silence comes the furious anger of the opening. We’ve reached the recap.

On the next page is an adagio in 3/8. It is in the key of A major- that fortissimo at the beginning of the first movement development was no accident. Again, the opening of the movement seems orderly and benign- all four bar phrases, all simple harmonies. Little can we imagine from this opening that ahead of us lies one of the most mysterious and haunting movements in all symphonic music. Sequences carry us off into oblivion. Again and again we experience this sense of disintegration. This is true music of twilight, heightened by the use of muted strings, which gives the sound of the orchestra an even more nocturnal color.

Next, a Menuet. Genial enough, except it is in F# major, a strange, exotic key. It has a disquietingly, dislocated glow- as if one is experiencing life in a heightened and altered state, or perhaps watching the ordinary events of a far-away world. Again and again, there are strange harmonic shocks, and interesting thematic references to the slow movement that just preceded, particularly the third-beat ties across the bar lines in long sequence. The trio is even more otherworldly- it begins with a generic horn call, but a horn call from another plane of reality. The composer had to order a special set of F# horn crooks from the local blacksmith in order to make possible this color. It is a sound no audience would ever have heard before- ultimately formulaic material, set in a completely unfamiliar tonal context.

At last, we reach the Finale. So far we’ve had three movements that are alternately stormy, disquieting, strange, angry, contradictory and in which nothing turns out to be what we thought it would be. Music of serene simplicity leads from pleasant country gardens into malevolent forests. Genial dances seem to come to us from another world, as though we watch skeletons dancing. The logic of sonata form is torn to shreds as the 2nd theme is held back until the end of the development. By this point in the work, we’ve come to expect the unexpected, so the composer must know that to shock us one more time, he must come up with a twist of unprecedented daring.

The F# minor Presto takes us back to the Sturm und Drang world of the opening movement. It’s terse, fiery, dramatic and virtuosic. Without a single wasted bar, the music drives forward with relentless, dispassionate focus. The only surprise seems to be that there is no real surprise- the entire exposition and development unfold on intense form, but more or less as expected, and the recap is telegraphed and terse, but logical. Is there to be nothing more? Is the final surprise the lack of a final surprise?

Finally, the moment arrives. The music cadences on the dominant, ending squarely on C#, and once again collapses into silence. After a moment of reflection we hear music of sublime consolation, once again in A major. Once we’ve heard the full expanse of the theme, we begin to get variations- first is a witty dialogue for 1st oboe and 2nd horn. When they finish, there is a brief silence, and the two players leave the stage.

Strange as the piece has been, nothing has prepared us for such a coup-de-theatre as this.  Next, the remaining winds, oboe 2, bassoon and horn 1 get their moment of glory. Then they leave. Gradually, the entire orchestra departs in silence, leaving only two solo violinists, who bring the work to an enigmatic close, not in F # minor, nor in A major, but in that most enigmatic and otherworldly of all keys, F # major.

You may have guessed early in this post that the work in question is Haydn’s Symphony no. 45. You may also be aware that there is a quaint story attached to this work. You may not realize that this story was not known in the early years after the works’ completion. The reason I’ve written this long post as I have is that every program note I’ve ever seen about this work begins with reference to that quaint story, which treats the enigmatic ending as a harmless joke, and the previous four movements an innocent prelude. We’re told the first movement isn’t really tragic and angry, just playfully so. The Adagio is described only in terms of its genteel opening, and not its disorienting interior. The bizarre key of the Menuet becomes an insignificant by-product of the overall scheme of the piece.

Perhaps I risk repeating myself if I refer to my post about Schumann from the other day. Popular misconceptions, whether that Schumann’s orchestration is second rate or Haydn’s music is harmless, can lead to serious loss of meaning in the music, because it lures us into skipping  over trying to figure out what the music is from the score and instead, we contextualize and water down the notation. We don’t bother to ask hard questions, to wrestle with the music as a listener- reading from beginning to end. When the silence precedes this symphony is shattered by an outburst of F# minor, we don’t know about the theatrics to come. We shouldn’t.

If, after you’ve really experienced the piece from beginning to end, you still choose to think of the work as a study in geniality, that’s fine. If you find the ending humorous in a naïve way, that’s your prerogative. On the other hand, if you’ve experience a symphony in which disintegration seems to be waiting around every corner, a Finale in which the orchestra itself seems to disintegrate seems to be much more than a simple plea to start summer vacation.

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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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4 comments on “Reading Haydn from Beginning to End”

  1. Terry

    Dare I hope we see a Haydn 45 conducted by yourself, treating Haydn seriously?

  2. Kenneth Woods

    I always try to treat Haydn seriously! We did the Farewell with ESO back in October and there are plans to record a bunch of the Sturm und Drang symphonies in due course….

  3. Terry

    I did not mean to imply the good Maestro did not treat Haydn seriously – only to specify my wishes. I look forward to these future recordings – you have a buyer in me.

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