Symphony Study No. 48 | Haydn: No. 64

by Glenn on June 13, 2016

Franz Joseph Haydn
Symphony No. 64 in A Major, Tempora mutantur
Composed and first performed: 1773
Allegro con spirito
Largo
Menuetto
Finale: Presto

The Academy of Ancient Music
Christopher Hogwood

There was something culminative about Mahler’s 3rd Symphony which I obsessed on for a week or so last month. Mahler took the symphonic form to its limits in terms of length and ambition for what it could represent. But like the old Peanuts cartoon, I was definitely Mahlered.

To re-engage with this symphony project, it seemed needful to listen to something more contained.

At just over 22’, Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 64 in A Major did nicely. (With Mahler’s Third we’d be about two thirds of the way through just the first movement. This said as someone who loves Mahler.) Listening to Haydn after Mahler is a little bit like walking into a Frank Lloyd Wright home after visiting Hearst Castle.

The opening movement features delightful melodies and plenty of dynamic contrast.

The second movement is the most remarkable of the four. It would be extraordinarily beautiful if any of the phrases would behave. Haydn denies you the comfort of hearing a phrase end in the way you might expect. There are moments of silence which, though not quite unsettling, are slightly uncomfortable. And there are plenty of harmonic surprises and moments of melancholy. The end of the movement is particularly rich with low strings and horns. The liner notes by James Webster accompanying the CD by The Academy of Ancient Music with Christopher Hogwood describe this Largo as “arguably the most eccentric movement Haydn ever composed.”

It’s difficult to describe music in a way that is both elegant and does justice to the music being described. Michael Steinberg’s description of this movement is as beautiful as the music:

“[T]he hymn-like tranquility of the theme is unsettled—quietly, but dramatically and inexorably—by the silences Haydn uses to force its phrases apart, silence that take the place of the phrase-endings and harmonic resolutions we wait for in vain, silences that cancel our expectations of symmetry. Here, too, there are unexpected darkenings of the landscape. Hadyn’s sense of orchestral resource is wonderful: for a long time we hear only muted strings, but when wind instruments do appear, from the first unassertive addition of oboes to the dramatic (but pianissimo) intervention of the two horns in the coda, placement and effect are superb.”

That’s what I meant to say about this movement.

At just under three minutes each, the last two movements are over almost as soon as they’ve begun. The minuet is perfectly charming with lovely ornamentation. Haydn’s humor and energy thrive in the final movement.

One of the things that’s always been difficult for me is placing musical works into the flow of history. This symphony was written in 1773, just three years before the Declaration of Independence. You wonder to what, if any, extent Haydn working at the palace of Esterháza was aware of let alone influenced by world events.

The Latin phrase “Tempora mutantur etc” is attached to this symphony as Haydn wrote it on the orchestral parts. It’s a reference to words by John Owen, an Elizabethan poet, whose epigrams were popular in Germany in Haydn’s time.

Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis:
Quomode? Fit semper tempore peior homo.

The Times are Chang’d, and in them Chang’d are we:
How? Man, as Times grow worse, grows worse, we see.”

Steinberg offers a more modern translation:

“The times change and we change with them. How? As they become worse, so do we.”

Leave it to the poets to set the record straight.