The timpani roll in the first bar, and its treatment later on in the work, is but the first of many imaginative features in this next-to-last of Haydn’s symphonies that remind us just how great his genius was: after more than one hundred symphonies and in his sixty-third year, his abilities seem anything but ravaged by time.
Haydn had expected to return to England in 1793 but the necessary agreements were not reached until the fall of that year, so he did not arrive in London until February 1794. During his interlude in Vienna he began to compose the six new symphonies that would be needed abroad, and also during those months he and Beethoven had their brief and not especially successful experiment at being master and disciple.
The point of the slow introductions to Haydn’s symphonies is that the subsequent Allegros usually get underway in understated manner, and the gravity at the start helps convey seriousness of purpose. Often, too, there is some allusion to the thematic material that will follow, thus further integrating the sections. That is the case with this G-major Symphony, a very popular work in its own right, and a conspicuous forerunner of the great Symphony 104.
Franz Joseph Haydn wrote the six opus 76 quarters in 1796-97, and they are his last completed set in the genre. Having just returned from his second (and final) visit to England, Haydn was at the height of his fame as a composer. Haydn had been writing quartets on and off for 46 years, and the quartets in this group show a boldness of style. Full of energy and confidence, the op. 76 quartets were commissioned by Count Joseph Erdody, a Hungarian nobleman.
Prince Anton Esterhazy had died in 1794 after a very short time at the family helm. Haydn’s new employer, the younger Prince Nikolaus, was anxious to reestablish the musical chapel. He asked of his celebrated Kapellmeister only an annual Mass for the nameday of his Princess Marie Hermenegild, nee Lichtenstein. This was 8 September, a church celebration for the birthday of the Virgin Mary; Haydn’s mass would typically be given the next Sunday.
The work many consider Haydn’s masterpiece is a direct descendent of Handelian oratorio. From his earliest days in England, Haydn admired the great Handel oratorios; above all Israel in Egypt, with its frogs, flies, and hailstorms, influenced Haydn as he worked on The Creation. It had long been the impresario Salomon’s plan to induce him to compose an oratorio for the English, and it was Salomon who brought him the libretto—one which had, in fact, originally been intended for Handel himself.