Thursday, July 3, 2008

Haydn: The London Symphonies: Symphony #100 "Military"

Today we continue our journey through six of Haydn's London Symphonies with a close listen to Symphony #100, nicknamed The Military Symphony.
Sir Colin Davis and the Concertgebouw Orchestra
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Haydn: 6 "London" Symphonies (Nos. 94, 100, 101, 96, 103 and 104)
Philips, 1977/2001

One of the unexpected joys of classical music is that it gives a window into the (often amusingly dainty) tastes and conventions of life hundreds of years ago. Modern listeners hearing Haydn's #100 will hear a fairly sedate symphony, complete with some modestly imposing martial-sounding touches, including triangles, cymbals and percussion not typically used in that era's symphonic works.

But this symphony was not thought of as "sedate" in its time. In fact, a contemporary of Haydn used the phrase "a hellish road to war" to describe this symphony, a phrase that would no doubt seem impossibly quaint to modern listeners. But no more quaint than Georgian-era English ladies jumping in surprise during his Symphony #94.

And, of course, how could classical music listeners of that era possibly imagine the overwhelming renderings of war in later symphonic works such as Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Holst's Mars or--a symphony I can't wait to listen to--Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony?

And that's what makes listening to classical music such a pleasure. Times change, listeners change, cultural conventions change, even the instruments change. But the truly great music--from every era--thrives and continues to inspire audiences. That's why there's very little risk in buying classical music from these older periods: only the very best stuff survives.

Listener notes for Symphony No. 100:
1) What do you think about the interesting mix of minor and major keys during the first half of the first movement?

2) Back to the "hellish road to war" comment again. It's not until two minutes into the second movement that we hear anything that's remotely military sounding. And honestly, it's hardly "hellish." But again, this was written for a different audience in a vastly different time.

3) At the 5:00 point in the second movement, listen for the trumpet calls. I'm sorry, but valveless trumpets playing in their lower register--even when played well--do not make for a particularly martial sound. We'll have a discussion in future posts about the merits or lack thereof of using "period instruments" when performing classical music of older eras.

4) But let me make a general comment on the overall quality of this recording, which can be boiled down into two words: nearly flawless. Hardly any missed notes or mistakes that I could notice. And for a guy who gets a bizarrely smug satisfaction out of picking out every off-key or chipped note, every recording error, every background noise and every mumbling conductor in any recording, that's saying something. Although on a couple of occasions (you'll need good headphones) you can also hear Sir Colin Davis humming along in Symphony 100.

5) How about that thrilling fourth movement? Any time you see a movement labeled "Presto"--and especially if it's in a symphony by Mozart or Haydn--you know you're in for some excitement.

6) Not to contradict myself in point 4), but at 4:40 in the Presto movement, do I detect an errant extra cymbal crash? I don't know this piece well enough to know for sure, but it sure sounds like he played one more than he should have. Reminds me of the "Far Side" comic strip by Gary Larson where there's a cymbal player thinking "I won't screw up, I won't screw up!" right before he screws up.

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