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Haydn: Symphony no. 88

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.

Here the strong sense of upbeat -downbeat in the Adagio prefigures many of the thematic shapes we will encounter as the work unfolds. The rusticity of the main theme in the Allegro is in equal measure a function of the tune itself (a folk melody) and of its being always stated in two voices: village bands dealt in this sort of thing, and we are meant to make the association. To that end the French horns have a strong presence, and drones of various sorts become conspicuous. The arrival of the second group is made clear by the soft dynamic and suddenly rather tame turn of events. Equally obvious of purpose is the little closing melody in the oboe and bassoon. Decorating the recapitulation is a new flute countermelody.
Variations on a theme constitute the second movement, a conceptual triumph that begins when Haydn selects solo cello and oboe, separated by an octave, to govern the sonority. Each variation is a more elaborate decoration of the theme; a contrastive section departs from and then reconnects its statements. Haydn scores the second of these as a tutti, where the trumpets and timpani are heard for the first time in the symphony. These tuttis become turning points for the remainder of the movement.

The spirited minuet, adored of Haydn’s audiences, returns us to rustic concerns. Here and elsewhere, when Haydn is composing in this manner, the little tags at phrase endings are part of the cleverness; the trio has an evocative pipe melody over drones. The finale is a sonata-rondo on a theme whose two eighth-note upbeats return that same detail of the first movement to mind: note, in the long departure that serves as a development, the episode where the theme is heard as a cannon between the lower instruments and violins.

Haydn’s previous six symphonies, nos. 82-87, had been ordered for a Paris series called the Concert de la Log Olympique. He composed the next two, nos. 88 and 89, with the Parisians very much in mind, but the year was 1789 and Parisians were otherwise occupied. Symphony No. 92, likewise in G major and likewise written for Paris clientele, shares mny other similarities with the 88th -though on the whole it has a more colourful history. This later G-major Symphony is called the “Oxford” because it was the work Haydn conducted in the Sheldonian Theatre there after ceremonies of July 1791 to award him the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

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