Symphony No. 59 in A major ‘Fire’ (Haydn)

…Huge, huge fun. If you’ve a nimble string section, this will put them to the test immediately. As for the nickname, this is more bonfire night than Mordor, so don’t worry about being traumatised…

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Program note
FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 59 in A major ‘Fire’

Haydn’s Symphony No. 59 calls for pairs of oboes and horns, a continuo group comprising bassoon and harpsichord, and strings. It was composed around 1768 and no later than 1769.

Presto
Andante o più tosto Allegretto
Menuetto
Allegro assai

Symphonies weren’t completely new in 1758 when Haydn – suddenly having an orchestra at his disposal – began composing them, but his achievements in this genre over the next four decades brought him 18th-century celebrity and enduring fame as the father of the symphony as we know it. Central to this was his employment by the Esterházy princes – spending long periods of time at the splendid but remote Eszterháza estate where, he said, isolation forced him to be original.  

The result is a characteristic and delightful combination of what are now familiar conventions of form with quirky surprises, musical experiments and dramatic gestures. It seems there was nothing Haydn liked better than to play with his listeners’ expectations. This symphony is no exception.

It sprints off with an optimistic flurry of notes, dominated by spiky repeated notes from the first violins, only to be brought up short by soft, sustained notes and a kind of slow, written out trill. Barely 15 seconds have elapsed and Haydn has introduced a slow-introduction gesture into what is most emphatically a fast movement (Presto). Then he does it again, bringing the first part of the movement to an unexpectedly quiet close. And so the first movement continues, with wild contrasts of volume, sudden dramatic gestures, and another unexpected ending.

The musical contrasts in the elegant slow movement (Andante o più tosto Allegretto) are less extreme. Instead, Haydn lulls us into the assumption that we’re listening to a movement for strings only (not uncommon in 18th-century symphonies) before, in the final minutes, introducing the oboes and horns to radiant effect and then tossing in a fleeting fanfare to add to the frisson.

Try to hold the opening melody of the second movement in your memory: it’s going to return (converted from A minor to A major) at the beginning of the Menuetto. This movement has its roots in the courtly minuet, but in the middle (or Trio) section there’s a retreat from the dance floor as the violins take over with mesmerising patterns of notes.

The finale (Allegro assai) begins with the horns and oboes in dialogue; the horns, in particular, take the spotlight with some very high notes. It’s the beginning of an exhilarating musical journey. But, it turns out, we owe at least some of the exhilaration to Haydn’s brother Michael. In 2009 it was established that Haydn – wearing his ‘editor’ hat – created this movement by substantially revising the finale of a symphony by Michael that had been circulating under the more famous ‘Joseph’ name. (Michael responded by composing a new finale.)

And the ‘fire’, you ask? The nickname, as was so often the case, didn’t come from Haydn himself and played no part in his inspiration. Symphony No. 59 was composed around 1768. About eight years later, a play by Gustav Friedrich Wilhelm Großmann – Die Feuersbrunst or ‘The Conflagration’ – was produced at Eszterháza and Haydn’s symphony was adopted as the entr’acte music. The play was famous for having been written as a bet, Großmann claiming that, so long as one ‘was in a good mood with good ideas’, one could write good drama in three days. We’ve no idea how many days this symphony took Haydn to write, but it has good mood and good ideas in abundance, and plenty of good drama.

© Yvonne Frindle, 2007/2021

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