Dawn to Dusk notes

Enjoy the program notes for our upcoming "Dawn to Dusk" concert! 

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Symphony No. 6, “le matin,” Symphony No. 7, “le midi,” and Symphony No. 8, “le soir”

Within Haydn’s three early symphonies, Nos. 6 (Morning), 7 (Noon), and 8 (Evening), audiences can observe a fascinating concatenation of factors: homage through symbolism to a new aristocratic employer, the utilization of talented musicians via extensive solo sections, and a celebration of Enlightenment era astronomical discovery.  

In 1761 Haydn entered employment in the aristocratic Esterházy family household—a stroke of fortune and opportunity. Up until then he had made a living as a freelancer, and then briefly as Kapellmeister in another court. Most of Haydn’s musical education had come from years of training in a Vienna choir school (until his voice broke, apparently embarrassingly in front of Empress Maria Theresa, herself), then self-instruction through books, and some formal training. But here, in one of the wealthiest environments, the young composer had the chance to explore his ideas, and the ability to hire some of the best musicians to execute them.

Paul Anton Esterházy had snatched up Haydn when the composer’s previous employer had to dissolve his court orchestra due to diminishing finances. There was one small glitch, however: he already had a Kapellmeister, an elderly man named Gregor Werner whom his mother had hired many years prior (in 1728), and whose compositional style was perhaps a little less fashionable and cosmopolitan than Paul Anton desired. In order to keep Werner, but hire Haydn, Esterházy created the position of Vice-Kapellmeister, and divided up the musical responsibilities: Werner to largely church music, and Haydn to “theater” music (general entertainments). After Werner’s death in 1766, Haydn was elevated to full Kappellmeister.

How, then, to impress your new employer? Write your first three symphonies for him in quick succession, and fill them with hat-tips to his favorite things. Columbia University professor Elaine Sisman notes in her excellent article, “Haydn: The Tageszeiten Symphonies,” that the Prince happened to own the music (by Joseph Starzer) to four ballets titled Le matin, Le midi, Le soir, and La nuit. The family palace was also decorated with ceiling murals depicting those stages of the day, accented with the appropriate mythological figures. Additionally, the main theme of Symphony No. 6 is played by the flute—which, just happened to be the instrument that Paul Anton played, himself—and in its opening solo melodically resembles a hunting horn call (one of the Prince’s favorite pastimes). Furthermore, structurally, each symphony features sections of highlighted solos or smaller ensemble sections. It happens that the Prince’s library held a vast collection of Vivaldi, and while Haydn’s symphonies are not in any way concerti grossi, they do utilize the “concertino” features of that previous era in a kind of homage. There might have been a secondary reason for the scattering of beautiful solo sections: to endear himself to his new orchestra through a little harmless flattery of his musicians (besides the fact this was one of the best bands in town, so he could afford to exploit them for an audience).

What about the overall theme between the symphonies of the sun in its various positions? Again, Sisman notes two insightful details: the language of honor that was bestowed on nobility, minor nobility, and aristocrats, and the simple fact of Haydn’s daily schedule, as outlined in his contract. The former harkens back to the idea of the sun as symbolism (think Louis the XIV, the “Sun King”):

“That Prince, by virtue of his rank, could be perceived as a kind of light-form. Princes of the realm were generally addressed with the title ‘Durchlaucht,’ which the dictionary will say means ‘Your Serene Highness,’ but is actually closer to what the Oxford English Dictionary charmingly refers to as its ‘burlesque’ form, ‘Your Transparency.’ The verb durchleuchten, to shine through, also means ‘to fill or flood (something) with light, light up, illuminate,’ suggests that ‘Durchlaucht’ might best be translated ‘Your Luminance.’ Court musicians were often reminded of the light emanating from their prince by the presence of ceiling painting showing Apollo with his sun-like attributes.”

Regarding the latter, Haydn was expected to present himself to Paul Anton before noon, and afternoon, to inquire about any musical needs or desires for the day for which he would need to prepare a performance with the palace orchestra. While this was likely not a direct influence or factor into the music, Haydn’s own life moved in direct tandem with the household and its activities dependent on the position of the sun in the sky (the time of day) and the son’s (Paul Anton’s) requirements.

Furthermore, the three Tageszeiten symphonies beautifully capture the 18th century Enlightenment zeitgeist. Music and astronomy have been grouped together since ancient times, from Plato to Boethius and on. There has been the “quadrivium” of studies including arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as well as the idea of “Musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres,” relating the proportional dimensions of the universe to the proportions of the harmonic series of a scale. Music is, after all, a science—the physics and properties of sound. Largely forgotten today is the fact that William Herschel, himself, the great astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, began his life as a musician, composing symphonies as a contemporary of Haydn before devoting himself full time to science (and they are delightful—give them a listen). It was a time of great general fervor for all things scientific. A few decades later, toward the end of Haydn’s life, London’s first one-way street would be created as a necessity due to the sheer volume of people trying to get to events and presentations at the Royal Institution. As Sisman points out, the year the symphonies 6, 7, and 8 premiered saw the highly anticipated Transit of Venus, where the planet could be visually followed passing between the earth and the sun, allowing for the measurement of the distance from the earth. Just before, society stood in awe as the comet Edmond Halley predicted would return, did. The Esterházy household joined in the general excitement at these events.

As his tenure with the Esterházys began to wind down, Haydn’s celebrity grew, and he became particularly beloved in London. Often called the “Father of the Symphony,” it was his time (annoying as it was to him on occasion) with the Esterházys that allowed him to work and experiment in what was essentially a luxurious laboratory. Greisinger’s biography of the composer, published directly after his death in 1810, contains the following quotation of Haydn:

“My sovereign was pleased with all of my works and honored me with his approval. As master of an orchestra I was free to experiment. I could observe how a desired effect was created, and what weakened it; I was able to improve, add, cut, even take risks. I was entirely removed from the outside world; no one close to me could make me doubt myself; no one could harass me. I therefore had to become original.”

We often hear the final part of that quote, and it is sometimes framed as a statement more about potential artistic loneliness and lack of creative community, than anything else. However, in its fuller context we can see the positive aspect to his situation: he was free to experiment, without harassment—and with a cracker-jack collection of instrumentalists, to boot. From our perspective we see how crucial those years were to the story of musical development over the centuries, and it started as the “dawn” of No. 6 broke.

Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.