1791: Haydn: Symphony No. 94 (SURPRISE) in G major

WEDNESDAY, October 21, 2020 – 9:51 AM

(For a complete list of all the London Symphonies click HERE.)

Symphony No. 94 (SURPRISE) in G major, age 59

The Symphony No. 94 in G major (H. 1/94) is the second of the twelve London symphonies written by Joseph Haydn. It is popularly known as the “Surprise Symphony”.

Instrumentation:

  • two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons
  • two each of horns, trumpets
  • timpani
  • strings
  • section consisting of violins (first and second), violas, cellos, and double basses.

Adam Fischer

1st movement

Of course it starts slow. What else? But each key has it’s own feeling, due to pitch. Most symphonies are not in Ab or Gb, so G major is kind of “brightness level”, and keys also determine which high and low notes each instrument can play comfortably. So the key makes a difference. Some keys are two low, some too high, and some just right for the music, sort of a Goldilocks thing. What can we link this too? This is again in 3/4, and I’m finding this is typical for Haydn. You get the feeling of a really fast waltz one minute then something with very heavy accents. The result is a scherzo feeling, but with sonata form. It appears to the  “Haydn formula”, and it works very well. Now, this is important to me. It’s an obvious D major scale twice HERE: D E F# G A B C# D. That’s a very creative way to use a scale.

2nd movement

 You don’t have to wait long for the “surprise”. Just start this movement, and the sudden chord will actually jolt you if you don’t know what coming. It’s a really simple theme. Then it gets varied, but the surprise only comes once. I imagine the audience was waiting to get trolled again, because it doesn’t happen again. This little theme is one of the most famous things every written, and you can plunk it out on all white keys. The form is theme and variations. Each part of each variation repeats. When composers write these childlike tunes, the seem so simple that you swear a three-year old could come up with it, and that’s the magic. Even a goldfish could probably remember such a theme, but what these geniuses do with the themes is the magic. Right HERE Haydn goes C7 to G7 twice before ending on C major. But he turns them both into flat nine chords, which are like 7 chords and dim chords morphed together. Very ingenious.

3rd movement

Again, this has the sound of a waltz, not a minuet. It’s too fast and too graceful. You know that by allegro molto, which means fast and a lot. This is where Haydn got closer and closer to the Beethoven idea of a scherzo, in 3/4 but much faster. I can’t find anything here to link to except perhaps one short idea

4th movement

This is part of the “Haydn formula”. Finish up with something that is fast and varies between light and heavily accented. Again I can’t link this to anything I know. I’m thinking that Haydn, like Beethoven, did not excel in beautiful melodies but rather in textures and rhythmic vitality, and in this way Beethoven and Haydn seem to have been kindred spirits. The big difference is that Beethoven had a huge dark side, and Haydn just didn’t. He was so irrepressibly optimistic and positive that there is just nothing “down” about his music.

Symphony No. 2?

That’s what I’m reading, that this is the 2nd of the London symphonies. Someone claims to have the answer, but how I do not know. There were so many composed at almost the same time. It seems incredibly unimportant to me, and I don’t even know how any proves which of these symphonies was composed in what order.

The surprise happens in the 2nd movement…

There is a sudden loud chord at the end of the otherwise soft opening theme of the 2nd movement. The music then returns to its original quiet dynamic as if nothing has happened. 

Did he try to wake up the audience?

Hhis biographer, George August Griesinger, asked Haydn if he wrote this “surprise” to awaken the audience. Haydn replied:

No, but I was interested in surprising the public with something new, and in making a brilliant debut, so that my student Pleyel, who was at that time engaged by an orchestra in London (in 1792) and whose concerts had opened a week before mine, should not outdo me. The first Allegro of my symphony had already met with countless Bravos, but the enthusiasm reached its highest peak at the Andante with the Drum Stroke. Encore! Encore! sounded in every throat, and Pleyel himself complimented me on my idea.

Immediately popular…

The symphony was popular from the premiere. The Morning Herald critic wrote:

The Room was crowded last night…. A new composition from such a man as HAYDN is a great event in the history of music. — His novelty of last night was a grand Overture, the subject of which was remarkably simple, but extended to vast complication, exquisitely [modulated and striking in effect. Critical applause was fervid and abundant.

Another famous symphony popular more than 200 years…

This symphony is still popular today, and is frequently performed and recorded. So there has never been an off year for this composition by Haydn.

1 thought on “1791: Haydn: Symphony No. 94 (SURPRISE) in G major

  1. This is I think the 3rd Haydn I’ve listened to recently from here. My impression is that Haydn was creative-playful, but not just to please himself musically, but thinking of the listener’s reaction – the kind of person who can’t wait to see people’s faces at what they’ve done.

    The 2nd movement, in simple form ofc, was part of my grade 1 violin exam. Memorable because it was my first (and only). And the time practising it for the event. The orchestral version sounds infinitely better. 😀

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