Haydn: Symphony No. 31 ("Hornsignal") and Sibelius: Symphony No. 3

Among other things, this program invites a listener to reconsider their notion of what the romantic/classical symphony is, does, and can do by presenting works that appear chronologically and aesthetically on either side of the generally accepted boundaries of the genre: an early, enthusiastic, exploratory work of Haydn (1765) and one of Sibelius’ middle-period pieces (1907) that makes an attempt to forge a renewed and sustainable re-engagement with tonality at a time when the possibility thereof seemed very much in doubt.  

Haydn’s “Hornsignal” symphony was written in a time before the formal and generic expectations of the symphony had fully congealed and become the conventions that the same composer would use 30 years later, and from which Mozart and Beethoven would take their cues.  Thus, like many of the composer’s earlier symphonies, its music contains an air of exuberance, enthusiasm, experimentalism, and even naïveté.  Like a few other works of the mid 1760s, it features a horn section that seemed even larger in Haydn’s day than it would be later -- though the number of horn players (4, plus an assistant) featured here became standard in the 19th century, Haydn’s available string section consisted of only 12-15 musicians, rendering the horns 20%-25%(!) of the orchestra.  This, combined with the bright-sounding valveless instruments that were mostly played without the hand in the bell, as well as the loud halls of the day, must have rendered the experience of hearing it for the first time quite shocking.

The first movement’s structure resembles the standard sonata form we grow accustomed to in later music; its aggressive opening, though, a paraphrase of a Croatian hunting call (the home of Haydn’s patrons, Esterháza, was located a considerable distance from cosmopolitan Vienna, in an ethnically mixed region of Austro-Hungary), still comes across as abrasive.  Hunting music was also associated with courtly values -- bravery and loyalty, for instance -- such that one can read the opening as re-affirming the social order of 18th century Europe.  It is immediately juxtaposed, though, much more quietly, with a post-horn solo, rendering ambiguous our previous reading.  (Post-horns were just that -- horns carried by postmen to announce their arrival, as they were normally on tight schedules.  Perhaps this one is quiet because it is being heard from a distance?)  One might view this as a music that is about the horn itself -- the horn as the instrumental representative of all of society, located in the realm of aristocracy as well as in the world of the harried, overworked post-man.  The rest of the exposition is an enthusiastic response by the rest of the orchestra, first an energetic tutti, then a second theme involving the solo flute in a series of ascending scales to which the ensemble responds.  After a repeat, a development section expands the opening horn call in different key areas; the recapitulation, however, skips it entirely, arriving instead on a shockingly subdued tonic minor that creates the effect of a momentary, unexpected, inappropriate negation.  The ground is being taken out from one’s feet suddenly and for some capricious, unknown reason.  The recapitulations ends, though, with the return of the opening fanfare, framing the movement like quotation marks.  

It is worth briefly stating how all of this must have sounded to Haydn’s initial audience compared to how it sounds to us.  In addition to the radical difference in ensemble size and instrumentation, performance context, the use of a hunting fanfare and a post-horn call is an explicit use of music from every-day life -- as if Haydn had taken as his musical material ringtones or a chorus from a radio song or the sound of the “L.”  It is music that is of his place and time.  That is remains powerful to a contemporary audience speaks to the mastery of its construction; in the meantime, though, we must keep in mind that the experience of listening to it is not merely that of listening to a piece that we really like it; it is also an experience with the history of our civilization.

The slow movement involves just the horns and strings alone, but is substantially taken up by the backward-looking stylistic reference to the Baroque concerto grosso in the guise of extended violin and cello solos.  The form is a straightforward ABA, the middle section relatively short, wanting to get back to the florid beauty of the solo violin line.

The Minuet returns to the festive, ostentatious atmosphere of the opening movement.  The Trio, as per tradition, is much less harmonically complex and features wind solos -- but its melodic lines move from instrument to instrument in a way that seems more conscious of its orchestration than we are accustomed to hearing in music of this time period.

The Finale is a long set of variations on a theme of utmost geniality first heard innocently in the violins.  Successive variations involve first the oboes and 3rd and 4th horns, then the solo cello, flute, the entire glorious horn quartet, solo violin, woodwind section, and finally, hilariously, the principal double bass (ok, admittedly, originally a “violone,” but surely no less comical and oafish on that instrument).  While, undoubtedly, each of these variations was written with the specific soloist from Haydn’s orchestra in mind, one gets a sense that each also represents something more general -- particular characters or affects.  It is awfully tempting to hear this movement, similar to the first, as Haydn’s attempt to write his society into the work, as if beating Mahler to his claim, 150 years later that “A symphony must be like the world; it must embrace everything.”  The symphony closes with a Presto of utmost exuberance in which the horns’ hunting call from the first movement returns at the very last moment, book-ending the whole work.  Though it happens only at the end, this device of recalling earlier movements’ music was unusual in symphonies of the time.  It immediately changes a listener’s interpretation as it explicitly creates a unified artwork -- a piece of music with a memory and a self-consciousness, as it were -- in a way that is, again, more what we’re used to in 19th century music.   One cannot help but wonder whether the diversity-embracing gestures that appear throughout have something to do with this -- whether the impulse to create a unifying ending isn’t the result of the work’s ambitious aims.  We are used to being told that composers of Haydn’s day were treated like a servants, that our notion of a what a composer is relied fundamentally on reception to Beethoven’s work.  While the historical facts surely cannot be denied, it seems to me that something needs to be examined about how we think about what Hadyn and his patrons thought he was doing.


Sibelius’s 3rd symphony, a relatively short piece that is not well-known at all in the composer’s oeuvre, is actually one of his more formally ambitious undertakings.  Though his first two are in a nationalist-romantic vein, the third is compact and “classicist,” attempting to articulate an idiosyncratic answer to the prominent compositional questions of the early 20th century.  Just as the harmonic language of many composers (Mahler and Strauss, say) was becoming increasingly and ever more densely chromatic -- leading of course to Schoenberg’s definitive and very self-conscious break with the concept of “tonality” in his Op. 11 piano piece of 1909 -- Sibelius was attempting the opposite, and not doing so in a way that can be described as thoughtlessly reactionary, as we find so often in music history.  Doomed to failure as him project was, his attempts to rescue tonality are sincere, thoughtful, and create a truly unique work in the present symphony.

He sets the symphony in the key of C major, a tonality that was by no means innocent of connotations in 1907.  Music like Beethoven’s 5th symphony or Brahms’ 1st come to mind -- music of clarity and obvious teleology.  The first movement is, literally, in a textbook sonata form…  it is obviously influenced by the tradition of the so-called “musikalische formenlehre” [theory of musical forms], a series of didactic books from the late 19th century that discuss the common genres of traditional Western music.  The first theme is affirmative of C major, complete with running scales.  The second theme, a passionate melody in the cellos, is in the dominant’s relative key, E minor.  The development section is well-behaved, leading to cheerful, climactic recapitulation, the second theme played by the whole string section.  The coda is subdued and ends on a markedly old-fashioned plagal (“Amen”) cadence.

The slow movement, nocturnal in tone, is as fussy about its tempo (Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto) as it is indecisive about its meter (constantly oscillating between 6/4 and 3/2).  The form is a bit difficult to pin down, from a listener’s standpoint, because of its repetitious nature -- material is repeated again, mulled over, obsessed about, orchestrations changed slightly, counter-melodies tinkered with, accompaniments altered.  This cycling through of material, repeating it with slight changes that do not feel exactly “developmental” is a key characteristic of Sibelius’s musical procedures, and is something that gives his works their unique feeling of simultaneous statis and forward motion.  The only hint of a middle section is a ghostly, fleeting series of scales in the woodwinds, punctuated by string and horn question marks.  The movement ends with splash of cold water.

The third movement, one of Sibelius’s most ingenious structures, is a scherzo which becomes a finale.  Sibelius called it “the crystallisation of chaos.”  It begins with a pastoral tone in the oboe, the meter a clearly defined 6/8.  Material from the previous movement is cycled through and discarded.  An ominous violin ostinato accompanying melodic fragments in the basses and horns produce an emphatically asserted major third that is promptly dismissed.  The process is repeated, followed by a chaotic scherzando of frenzied energy.  From the fragments of this emerge a noble tune in the violas; as we watch the scherzo fall away, the violas are joined by the cellos in a C major hymn.  One can do no better than quote James Hepokoski regarding what happens next:

We may regard it as an exponentially distilled illustration of that type of nationalist symphony finale that featured circular “folk” reiterations as the telos of the whole work.  Or we could hear it as occupying the substantially altered recapitulatory space of a bold sonata deformation encompassing both the scherzo and finale portions of the third movement conceived as a single, generative gesture.  Or -- perhaps most relevantly from our immediate perspective here -- we may regard it as the production of a “supersatured” C major whose sheer specific gravity, ever accruing, permits no escape (for instance, via its frequent “Lydian” fourths) to subordinate themes or keys… This progressive accumulation of concentration and weight on a single sonority is unique in the symphonic repertory.  It drives towards a maximal-density, heavily weighted close, a sonorous black hole that excludes all other possibilities.  Appropriately, it is capped off at the end with an elemental 5-3-1 C major triadic affirmation, ff, in the brass.

Indeed, here is Sibelius’s response to Schoenberg; whereas the latter saw a harmonic and contrapuntal system collapsing under the weight of the very rules that enabled its development, Sibelius sees an emphatic, inescapable centripetal force in which the goal, reached on in the final measures of the work, is the establishment of the primacy of C major on both a horizontal and vertical level.