Classical II: Classical Classics

Classical Classics—In this year’s GOLD MEDAL CONCERT, we feature the three composers who truly put the symphony on the map, with works that represent the infancy, maturity, and refinement of the genre.Franz Joseph Haydn

(March 31, 1732-May 31, 1809)
Symphony No. 3 in G major, Hob.I:3

One of the more famous composers in Western musical history, Haydn is well-known to most concert-goers. His early life as a singer and free-lance musician in Vienna has been thoroughly documented, as has his steady rise from a relatively early age to the position of Kapellmeister (basically Music Supervisor) for the Austro-Hungarian court at Esterhazy. At court, he managed an ensemble of fifteen to twenty players and composed according to his employer’s will. Haydn, like others who benefited from the patronage system of the eighteenth century, was allowed to develop his music in a very craftsman-like way which, in turn, allowed him to become an important force in music history, including the father of the modern symphony.

Scored for a typical orchestra of the time (two oboes, bassoon, two horns and strings), his third symphony is seen as the very first to have four movements in what would become the standard configuration: fast, slow, minuet, fast. The melody is generally shared by violins and oboes, frequently in unison or in alternation/echo. The horns provide harmonic support. The first movement is the longest and contains the most musical material. The phrasing is mostly symmetrical with a few surprises or overlaps. The second movement is a lovely expressive movement in minor (mostly) for the strings. In the stately but upbeat third movement, the winds rejoin the texture, with the violins and oboes essentially in unison for the Minuet, and the winds featured in the Trio. Occasional imitative texture provides interesting contrast, as well.  This imitation continues in the fourth movement, which begins much like a fugue. The sense of the instruments chasing each other carries through to an exciting finish.

This early symphony does not contain the same sort of refined, spun-out melody or interesting development sections that would characterize his later works, but it is clear that Haydn had made a break with the past and set the symphony on a unique course for the future.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(January 27, 1756-December 5, 1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550

Mozart’s fortieth symphony is the second of a set of three composed during the summer of 1788. Scholars have found no indication of a commission, so speculation is that the three were composed as a set either in hopes of selling them for a concert in Vienna, or even for a London concert tour. The symphonies were not published in Mozart’s lifetime, and there is no clear evidence that they were even performed before he died.

Symphony No. 40 is scored for a larger-sized “Classical” orchestra: one flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and strings. The first movement begins mysteriously without an introduction. Eventually, the harmony moves from minor to major and the second theme is more positive, and the exposition eventually ends triumphantly. The development focuses on the first theme, with much dramatic contrast and passing of the main musical motive around among the different sections. The recapitulation adds a few extra twists and turns in the intervening transition and final coda. In this movement alone, one can sense Beethoven on the horizon.

The second movement is a light, lyrical contrast to the first. The strings dominate the sound, but the winds add interesting coloring and contrast. By the end, the music becomes quite dramatic before it finishes gently.  The third movement is labelled a Minuet, but it is not the popular movement of social events—it is aggressive, almost angry, with a cross-rhythm that belies the normal three-beat dance. The Trio section, however, is surprisingly light and dance-like. The return of the Minuet sets the stage for the dramatic finale.

The fourth movement opens with a soft ascending motive in the violins that is responded to with loud chords in the full orchestra, creating a bit of unease about how this symphony might end. The contrasting theme is pleasant, almost triumphant by comparison. The development begins with a strange angular passage that uses eleven of the twelve chromatic notes, avoiding only the tonic G. This essentially clears the ears for a development that uses all sorts of melodic, harmonic, and textural devices to explore seemingly every possible version of the opening theme. After a dramatic stop, the recapitulation begins, revisiting both themes in minor.  Unlike many symphonies in minor keys, this one does not relent and end positively—the dramatic pathos is maintained to the end.

Beethoven knew this symphony well, as evidenced by inclusion of some measures copied into one of his sketchbooks. Johannes Brahms obtained Mozart’s original score, calling it “the crown” of his manuscript collection. There is no doubt that this symphony is considered a masterpiece of the genre.

Ludwig van Beethoven
(December 17, 1770-March 26, 1827)
Concerto No. 4 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, op. 58

The early 1800s were important years of activity for Beethoven, during which he created some of his greatest works. The fourth piano concerto was completed in 1806 and premiered, along with the Coriolan Overture and the Fourth Symphony, in March 1807 at a private concert at the home of Prince Lobkowitz. The piece is very “Classical,” with more emphasis on refined melodic invention and transparent texture, and fewer overt dynamic surprises and complicated developmental textures. It is almost as if Beethoven is channeling the spirit of Mozart into this more progressive context.

Concertos of this time usually begin with an orchestral introduction, but Beethoven’s surprise is two-fold—not only does the piece begin with the solo piano but it also begins very simply. The orchestra then takes the theme and gradually begins expanding it to create the expected orchestral exposition. The piano then re-enters, and an elaborate conversation between soloist and ensemble ensues. It is not quite a conversation of equals, however—the soloist tends to dominate, playing ornamented versions over the top of the melody, or guiding some of the more adventurous changes in harmony. After an extended cadenza, the movement tries to end quietly, but a final surge of sound brings it to a definitive conclusion.

The second movement begins with surprising drama in the orchestra. The piano, however, enters delicately. Gradually, the orchestra becomes more insistent as the piano continues, unmoved, and eventually the orchestra relents. The effect is almost like a recitative, with an ending that is quiet but unsettled, and many, including Franz Liszt, have likened the overall effect to Orpheus calming the Furies at the gates of Hades as he goes to retrieve his wife from the Underworld. 

The third movement begins attacca, and it is quite enthusiastic in the orchestra, as if to ask, “Can we get on with it?” The piano settles things a bit, however, maintaining control. The orchestra provides numerous interjections while the piano adds complexity and depth through ornamentation and surprising calmer interjections of its own. Finally, the two settle their differences and, after a final cadenza, finish together in triumph.

A review in the May 1809 Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung stated that this concerto “is the most admirable, singular, artistic and complex Beethoven concerto ever.” However, after its first performance, the piece was neglected until 1836, when it was revived by Felix Mendelssohn. Today, the work is widely performed and recorded, and it is considered to be one of the central works of the piano concerto literature.