A Festive Symphony from Haydn’s Pen

Haydn festive hymn
The light in the darkness. © Charles Thibo

Are you already in a festive mood? Christmas is less than a week away, and whatever your creed is, Christmas is something special, be it in Europe, the Americas or even Asia. Here is something solemn, uplifting, festive in every respect: Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 11 in E flat major (Hob. I:11). The composer most likely wrote it between 1760 and 1761, just before or just after he had been appointed to the court of Paul Anton Count of Esterhazy. His contract with the count stipulated that Haydn would compose a new piece anytime his employer wished to hear something new and that the count would have the exclusive rights to the piece, a ruinous clause that the Esterhazys’ luckily never used.

Haydn actually had no difficulty to impose himself, being confident about both his talent, his creativity and his diligence. There is a wonderful anecdote from the year 1761 that nicely shows Haydn’s attitude. When Haydn took up his service, he was seated at the maître d’hôtel‘s place at the dining table, since the latter was ill. When the maître d’hôtel came back, he was surprised to find his place occupied by a stranger. In a society where hierarchical  consciousness was a distinctive mark, this was a major offense, and the maître d’hôtel challenged first the secretary, who had assigned the place to Haydn, and then the composer himself.

Soul food or real food?

Haydn then got up and apparently said: “Wherever there is a maître de chapelle, he must occupy the first place. This one has been given to me, and I will keep it.” The maître d’hôtel took Haydn’s plate and cutlery and moved it to the opposite end of the table. Without saying anything the count’s secretary and the rest of the personnel got up and moved to the other end of the table too, leaving the maître d’hôtel alone at his end. While Count Esterhazy admonished Haydn, the composer nevertheless kept his place at the table and his higher ranking was acknowledged.

I sincerely hope that no such dispute will arise at your Christmas dinner table. That would be most unfortunate! No dissonant voices shall trouble Haydn’s delightful and entertaining music. Symphony No. 11, along with the Symphonies No. 5 and 18, is written in the style of the sinfonia di chiesa, which derives its form from the sonata di chiesa*: The first and third movements are written in a slow tempo*, the second and fourth in a fast tempo. The symphony is scored for two oboes, bassoon, two horns, strings and basso continuo*.

But now, without further ado, let’s enjoy Haydn’s Symphony No. 11, recorded by the Academy Of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood, and look forward to a few festive and pleasant days.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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