Improvised drumroll, strokes of genius and a charming surprise

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Joseph Haydn. © Charles Thibo

“Haydn had a clever trick to keep his audience alert”, my music teacher smirked long ago. “He’d use the timpani – drumroll! I could use some of those here because you are NOT paying attention to what I say!” We laughed – and focused on the teaching. Clever man. Drumroll. That’s how one of Joseph Haydn’s most famous symphonies starts. Symphony No. 103 in E flat, performed for the first time on March 2, 1795 in London at King’s Theatre.

Happy days in London

The day after the premiere, the “Morning Chronicle” noted that the symphony “had continual strokes of genius, both in air and harmony. The introduction excited deepest attention, the Allegro charmed, the Andante was encored, the Minuets, especially the trio, were playful and sweet, and the last movement was equal, if not superior to the preceding.” In 1795, Haydn was at the climax of his fame in Great Britain and he considered the four years he had spent in London the most happiest of his life.

However, after the death of his former patron, Prince Anton Esterhazy, his successor Nikolaus II offered him the reappointment as the family’s Kapellmeister. He had served the Esterhazy court from 1761 to 1790, but Haydn had sought and gained his independence from his contract with Prince Anton when he became the copyright owner of his works and was able to sell them on his own.

Dynamic, vivid, dramatic

During Haydn’s lifetime, Symphony No. 103 was extremely popular in the Habsburg empire and the most frequently played of all his symphonies. I suppose the Viennese audience appreciated its dynamic character, the vitality and the self-confidence it expresses. Since  I heard it for the first time during a music lesson in 1982/83, I have returned to this piece of music time and again. And now, some 30 years later, I enjoyed it for the first time in a live performance. What fun I had yesterday with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, conducted by guest conductor Andrew Manze!

I was especially looking forward to the opening as Haydn never specified how the drum roll should be played. The score indicates a half note extended by a quarter note in E flat, a fermata indicating that the note may be sustained at the performer’s discretion for a duration longer than the indicated time value. That opens room for improvisation, and if you check videos on Youtube, you will find all kind of drumroll intros: long ones, short ones, crescendo – decrescendo as well as the other way around, complex figures, a simple military style roll… The US music scholar Charles Rosen noted in a work on Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven that anything is permitted as long as it is dramatic!

Yesterday’s option was a muted crescendo… How boring! That was my first thought. But then I realized that the timpani just introduced the general mood of the first movement. Did Haydn really had a dramatic showing off in mind? Haydn was a calm and reflective man, not a composing clown. Boring? No, appropriate. And Haydn had no lack of wit or humor as the second piece of that evening, Haydn’s Piano Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII:11 showed. The Russian pianist Denis Kozhukhin played the solo part – a charming artist performing a truly charming piece that I will have to get back to.

The recording if Symphony No. 103 I have is one of the first classic CDs I ever bought: Claudio Abbado conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

© Charles Thibo

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