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Haydn: Symphony No. 103, 2nd movement


The Drum Roll symphony, written as part of Haydn’s second set of six London symphonies, was first performed in London on 2 March 1795. Haydn had been the darling of the English public ever since his first visit in 1791, when he had met and impressed royalty, and when Oxford University had conferred upon him an honorary DMus. There was considerable financial gain too, since during these visits both concerts and composing earned him vastly more money than he had earned as court musician at Esterházy.

His actual association with the City of London was chiefly due to the commission of the symphonies by the violinist and impresario Johann Salomon, in whose concert series Haydn was to become proactively involved. However, Salomon abandoned his 1795 series of concerts (for which this symphony was intended) due to a lack of first-class singers from abroad. Instead, Haydn teamed up Giovanni Battista Viotti who was at that time directing his own separate series.

The London symphonies, the last twelve he wrote, stand as the pinnacle of Haydn’s symphonic achievement in their mastery of form and handling of orchestral forces. The years spent at Esterházy had allowed Haydn the opportunity for compositional experimentation, given the enclosed environment and the professional musicians at his disposal. Thus he was able to indulge and develop his intuition for structural possibilities on many levels, exploring both the thematic and tonal aspects of Classical sonata form, or finding new ways to shape minuets, rondos and slow movements. In this light, these late symphonies dispel the myth that Classical forms were rigid structures, cast in stone, since the sheer variety and imagination displayed are breathtaking.

Many of Haydn’s symphonies had nicknames bestowed on them by his audiences, and the popularity of the London Symphonies meant that a large portion of them are now known by more than just number and key, the Surprise (No. 94), the Miracle (No. 96) and the Clock (No. 101) to name but a few. Symphony No. 103 gets its epithet (the Drum Roll) from the timpani roll that opens the first movement. More astonishing, however, is the way the slow introduction material reappears towards the end to interrupt the Allegro.

The second movement’s variation format is interesting in its use of two separate themes, which are developed in alternate variations. Haydn had used variations previously in these late symphonies in the famous slow movement of No. 94, although there the form is treated in a fairly straightforward manner; to hear Haydn’s most masterful and imaginative writing in this form, one should listen to the slightly later f minor variations for piano, Hob. xvii/6, which utilises a similar double-variation approach with alternating minor and major variations. The two themes used have certain similarities in shape, most notably in the way they start with a leap from dominant to tonic, followed by a rise up to the dominant before falling downwards. In her book Haydn (Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1950), Rosemary Hughes demonstrates that these two themes are actually subtly-modified Croatian folk melodies and discusses Haydn’s use of folk tunes on a broader level.

The orchestration of this movement shows typical features of the period; the textural balance is heavily weighted towards the strings, with the wind more often than not doubling or merely padding-out the harmony. Only in one passage (bars 135-142) are they truly given centre-stage to carry the thematic material. It is worth noting that the clarinets, used in the outer movements of the symphony, are not employed here. Brass instruments are limited to filling in harmonies or providing emphasis to louder passages with fanfare-like gestures, where the timpani are usually also used to underline the root of the tonic or dominant harmonies.

Later in the movement, Haydn displays his genius through the insertion of a short developmental passage, based on the opening of the major theme (bars 160-186). Starting in the tonic C major, there is then a surprising modulation to E-flat, and it is worth noting that such explorations of distant-key modulations, very much a feature of his later works, foreshadows Beethoven and Schubert, especially in the use of keys a third apart. Tonal developments such as this are particularly strong in his late piano works, such as the Sonata in E-flat (Hob. xvi/52), where they can be seen on both a structural and local scale. Its slow movement is in a very daring E major (the enharmonic Neapolitan key), and within the development section of the first movement, which is in E-flat, Haydn explores remote keys such as C major, g minor and E major. However, this is merely one facet of a larger trend in his music to utilise the unexpected. Full of delightful twists and turns that transcend the ordinary, Haydn’s music justifies his place as one of the true masters of the symphony.

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