Haydn's Symphony No. 6 in D ("Le matin")


performed at Staunton Music Festival

August 17, 2019

Trinity Episcopal Church, Staunton, VA


violin: Plamena Nikitassova (leader), Natalie Kress, Minna Pensola
viola: Kathleen Overfield-Zook       cello: Michael Unterman
violone: Heather Miller Lardin      flute: Immanuel Davis
oboe: Alek Fester, Margaret Owens      bassoon: Keith Collins
horn: Todd Williams, Ian Zook       harpsichord: Mark Shuldiner


video by Stewart Searle






About the Music

Not surprisingly, among his 104 symphonies, there are several by Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) that seem to fit well with the various times of the day.  At today’s noon concert we performed his Symphony No. 7, subtitled “Midday.”  That work is the central one of three written upon being hired by Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy in early 1761.  Haydn would write over 70 symphonies while in the service of the Esterhazy family, beginning with Symphonies Nos. 6, 7, and 8.  In fact, the very idea to write three “time of day” symphonies seems to have come from Prince Anton himself.  Taking this commission to heart and wanting to impress his new employer, Haydn penned the symphonies in quick succession.  Each symphony includes fabulous solo passages for various instruments, giving each member of this excellent orchestra a chance to stand out.  Ingratiating himself with his fellow musicians was a masterful first step by the new composer-in-residence.


As is often the case with Haydn’s symphonies, a nickname gets attached that usually bears only minimal relation to the entire work.  In the case of Symphony No. 6, Le Matin (“Morning”), the evocative gesture occurs right at the outset.  An Adagio introduction, scored initially for unaccompanied violins, expands gradually like the coming dawn, drawing out the other instruments in turn.  Solo flute then takes the lead at the outset of the Allegro main theme, perhaps redolent of twittering birds at first light.  These naturalistic touches led by solo winds mark the remainder of the exposition.  One noteworthy detail, looking ahead many years to Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, is the premature solo horn entry just moments before the true capitulation occurs.


In the second movement one will hear the similarity between the symphony circa 1761 and the earlier concerto grosso tradition.  Features like the reduced texture (minimal strings supporting solo violin), use of accompanying harpsichord, and the simple chord progression hearken back a generation.  The solo writing later spills over from violin to cello, and the pair enjoy moments of delightful dialogue.  Returning to the Adagio material, Haydn seems poised to parrot a late Baroque transition and finish with a traditional Phrygian half cadence.  But he eschews this expectation with a simple V–I cadence, rounding the movement off before proceeding into the next one.  The Minuet features solo flute, but the clearest demonstration of Haydn’s intent—which is to explore concertante textures, even moments that approach the quality of true chamber music—comes out forcefully in the delightful D-minor trio and the bustling finale.  Even though there seems to be nothing beyond the opening page of the symphony to suggest “morning,” the evident charm and striking use of soloistic writing sets these “time of day” symphonies apart.


© Jason Stell, 2019




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