1765: Haydn: Symphony No. 31 in D major (HORNSIGNAL), age 33

Mr. Peabody Says:

This is a tough pick.


  1. Allegro 7:08
  2. Adagio in G major 10:06
  3. Menuet — Trio 4:56
  4. Moderato molto 9:43

Total time: 31:53

Charles Mackerras/Orchestra of St. Luke’s

  1. Allegro 7:02
  2. Adagio in G major 10:05
  3. Menuet — Trio 5:00
  4. Moderato molto 11:55

Total time: 34:02


  • one flute
  • two oboes
  • four horns, 2 in D, 2 in G
  • strings


It is nicknamed the “Hornsignal” symphony, because it gives a prominent role to an unusually large horn section, i.e. four players. Probably because of its prominent obbligato writing for the horns, in Paris, the publisher Sieber published this symphony as a “symphonie concertante” around 1785.

1st movement:

This is followed immediately by a solo horn playing a posthorn signal. The recapitulation at first omits the fanfare, beginning with posthorn signal, but the fanfare returns in the codas of both the first and last movements.[13]

2nd movement:

The slow movement has a siciliano rhythm and feel with solo passages for violin and cello against pizzicato bass accompaniment. Full orchestration (including all four horns) is retained for tutti passages, recalling the style of a concerto grosso.

3rd movement:

4th movement:

The finale is a theme with seven variations. The variations here and in No. 72 are the first to appear in the Haydn symphonies. Most of the variations are written to show off a particular instrument or section of the orchestra, in the following order: oboes, cello, flute, horns, solo violin, tutti (all players), and double bass. There is a final coda, marked Presto, whose final notes repeat the horn fanfare of the opening movement of symphony.


The backdrop of this and other early Haydn symphonies was a patron who loved music and wanted his household music to be performed by top musicians – but whose budget did not accommodate anything like the orchestras of the size seen in modern times. Personnel fluctuated, and thus also the forces Haydn had available to work with. Haydn himself sought to retain the best instrumentalists, and he did so in part by writing interesting and challenging solos for them in his early symphonies.

Big horn section:

Prince Nikolaus’s orchestra had included a large horn section (four players) earlier in the 1760s, but one horn player, Franz Reiner, left in 1763 and was not replaced. A further loss is reported in a letter by Haydn dated 23 January 1765 (the earliest preserved letter of the composer). This informs the Prince of the death of a horn player named Knoblauch.

Prince Nikolaus brought the horn section back to full strength in May 1765, when hornists Franz Stamitz and Joseph Dietzl were engaged to fill the missing places. The “Hornsignal” Symphony evidently was written to celebrate this event.

(Other four-horn symphonies from roughly the same time are No. 13, No. 39, and the misnumbered No. 72.)

How we know when this was composed:

The exact date of the symphony is not known, other than the year. However, the symphony must have been premiered no earlier than May (since that is when Stamitz and Dietzl arrived) and before September 13, 1765. The latter date is known since the symphony includes a flute part, and the flautist (Franz Siegl) was dismissed on this date for having carelessly started a fire while shooting birds;[6] it was only the following year that Haydn was able to persuade his patron to reinstate Siegl.

Haydn played too:

Haydn himself probably would have been one of the first violinists, leading the orchestra with his instrument.

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