Haydn: Symphony No. 92 (Symphony Study No. 9 of 118)

by Glenn on August 23, 2015

Haydn: Symphony No. 92, Oxford
First performance: c. 1789
Sigiswald Kuijken | La Petite Bande | 1991
Sir Simon Rattle | Berliner Philharmoniker | 2007

When Haydn was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Oxford, he led a performance of this symphony on 7 July 1791, hence the nickname, Oxford. While the first known performance of this symphony was earlier in 1791, it had been written two or three years earlier for a performance in Paris.

This was so charming that I listened to it twice. I can recommend either performance, though they are different. The Berlin Phil is a modern orchestra embracing performance practices of the classical era. La Petite Bande uses Baroque-era instruments to play period music, including the later music of Haydn. The Berlin Phil is virtuosic, La Petite Bande is authentic. For me it’s simply a matter of taste and preference.

It was fascinating to listen to this after my journey through Vaughan Williams’ Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, and 6. The music is extraordinary in its simplicity. For me, Haydn is a beautiful Frank Lloyd construction.

There is grandeur in simplicity.

I’m not sure what kind of dwelling Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6 would be, but I don’t think I would want to live in it.

Also, Haydn’ symphony feels joyful and playful, while the Vaughan Williams was kind of disturbing in a way.

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The Oxford has four distinct movements.

i

The first movement opens quietly then Haydn takes us into an uptempo opening movement in sonata form featuring two delightful melodies. Michael Steinberg has a way with words and describes the second melody as “A cute hands-in-pockets whistling theme.”

ii

The slow movement is gorgeous. Clean lines. A great tune, beautifully presented.

iii

The menuet is the easiest structure in this symphony to understand without a score. Basically it’s A-B-A. The opening A section is a melody and variation that are repeated. The B section features the horns for a bit of fun. Then the A section returns.

iv

The last movement is a delight because the opening tune isn’t really harmonized. The melody dances on top of a repeating g. But Haydn plays with all of this and gives us five minutes of pure joy.

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One of the questions I am wrestling with is how listening to and thinking about this symphony (or any other) fits into a Christian life. When I was teaching at Azusa Pacific University, faculty members were asked to consider the intersection of faith and learning in their field.

Obviously, theology is easy to marry with your Christian experience, or at least it should be. The helping professions—nursing, psychology, etc.—are informed by Christian ideas of service. I believe in the idea that “all truth is God’s truth,” so that any pursuit of truth is a Christian ideal. There are aspects of learning about music that are all about learning the truth, theory and history for example.

But is listening to a Haydn symphony a pursuit of truth? It seems more like a pursuit of pleasure.

Further, is it more or less spiritual to listen to Haydn’s (or any other classical composer’s) music? Does style of music have anything to do with this issue? For example, is it more spiritual to listen to Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 4 rather than, say, some punk rock? They’re both aggressive. Is it permissible to listen to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” as it’s more enjoyable than Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 6, even though the subject matter of both seems somewhat dark? These are things I will be thinking about.

In the meantime, I plan to listen to more Haydn. All twelve of his “London Symphonies” made Steinberg’s list, so perhaps one day there will be a Haydn listening party.

In the meantime, I was remembering a quote by Ravi Zacharias I heard on one of his podcasts. He said,

“Anything that refreshes you without distracting you from, diminishing, or destroying the final goal is a legitimate pleasure in life.”