Haydn’s symphony no. 103

Haydn’s symphony no. 103 premiered in London 1795 and forms part of the ‘London Symphonies’. It was the first ever symphony to open with a drumroll, hence the nickname The Drumroll Symphony’. The drumroll leads into long notes of the orchestra’s bass instruments; basses, cellos and bassoons and is finally joined by woodwinds for a resolution. The simmering dark drama of this opening theme is as magnetic as it is unusual for the Classical era. A second variation on the theme is played by violins and offers up more mystery with offbeat accompaniment. Then the melody veers off into an unexpected harmonic direction. This entire slow introduction is emotional and mesmerising but surprises by seamlessly leading into a lively first theme with a completely different flavour.  Accented offbeats lend the first theme it’s charm and the answer comes from the entire orchestra which increases the playfulness; like a small toddler being talked to by their elders.The first movement’s second theme is extremely airy and buoyant and I can picture the imagined little girl from the first theme dancing around in spring meadows. In the development section that follows the opening motif is layered, staggered and repeated by the different instruments creating a fugal impression. Countermelodies are added, culminating in a climactic cadence. An even bigger surprise follows when the slow introduction theme is reintroduced and combined with the first theme creates an interesting new rhythm. The second theme is reintroduced unchanged, but by the second phrase it leaps off into a new direction. The recapitulation plays even more with the rhythm by slightly shifting certain instruments to a different beat. Finally we return to the symphony’s introduction and the movement ends with a bombastic conclusion of the principal theme. This ‘returning to the top’ had not been done before and it seems Haydn invented it.

The 2nd slow Movement (another Haydn invention) is made out of two interlocking/contrasting themes. The first theme starts off in a minor key and would make for great opening music to a modern day fantasy horror film. It is both dark and tongue in cheek, with its interplay between long and short notes- like someone sneaking up on a house. The second theme is in a major key and gives an innocently proper air. There’s nothing sneaky or devious about this second theme. The interplay between these two very differing themes is so exciting and interesting. The third movement Minuet which follows is very chirpy with a flowing and pretty trio in the middle. The Finale movement is marked ‘Allegro con spirit’ – ‘fast with spirit’ and is very lively. Starting with just horns call leading into a violin figure with contrapuntal echoes. This figure develops into an entire fugal tapestry woven out of the relatively simple violin theme, resembling some of Mozart’s writing.

The historians say that Haydn had to work hard on his symphonies and he’s rarely referred to as a genius in the same way that Mozart often is, but I think that his inventiveness and ability to express moods and weave disparate themes together is remarkable and exciting. Even if this symphony is painstakingly ’constructed’ and meticulously planned it is still a masterpiece and an inspiration.