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Haydn: Symphony no. 103 “Drum Roll”

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.The mysterious melody that follows, in the bassoon and low strings, is so set out that you cannot quite fix the meter at first; moreover  it hints at the famous Dies Irae tune, and this sinister suggestion is reinforced by the eerie chromaticism which then ensues. In that context, the spirited 6/8 of the sonata allegro that follows, and its rather naive quality, come as something of a surprise. Of similarly bright humor is the most prominent theme in the second group, a rustic melody stated by oboe and violin over a waltz like accompaniment. (the four bars that introduce this come from the lugubrious introduction, and there is another reference to the slow introduction in the development after the first fermata.) But a remarkable twist comes in the coda: here the drum roll and the substance of the introduction are heard once more.

The merriment masks a good deal of serious thought about formal structure, and Beethovenian scope and process seem just around the corner. One has the same response to the second movement, a theme and variations that alternates between C minor and C major. (You will usually read that this is a set of variations on two themes, the minor one and the major one, but it all amounts to natural transformation of the first theme.) Enjoy, especially, the low Cs in the bass line, remembering that the double bass typically has E as its lowest note. (The implication is that Haydn’s bass players either had five-stringed instruments or tuned their lowest string to a low C.) The fine violin solo was for the great violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti, during whose concert this symphony was first heard; after this comes the drums and trumpets, held so far in reserve. The clarinets are not heard at all. The minuet, too, is big, with a long development and recapitulation in its second strain. Note the tag on the first strain, which had by now become a Haydn trademark, the sort of thing I like to describe as a conspiratorial wink of composer to listener. The trio, built in roughly the same proportions as the minuet, has a music-box quality, the result of the interplay of the sting voices doubled by solo woodwind. What seems to be a simple horn call opens the finale, but we soon discover that its countersubject has become the theme of this highly imitative movement. The fugal treatment is sustained throughout, often with long-held notes above and below the figure in the winds. Here again, Beethoven’s world seems not so distant: there is almost the sensation of Fate knocking at the door.

The “Drum Roll” Symphony has an alternative ending that has come down to us and which you may occasionally hear. More interesting is the question of the dynamic level of the first drum roll. The usual solution is to play it with a marked decrescendo, though there is some disagreement as whether eighteenth century timpanists would have thought in such terms.

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