Last Wednesday was April 1, aka, April fools day, and because of the Covid-19 pandemic, most people canceled the chaos and mayhem that usually happened on that day in other years, but I thought I’d remind some of us who already knew, and introduced others who didn’t yet, to one of the best practical jokes ever; The “surprise” symphony by Franz Joseph Haydn.
F. J. Haydn grew-up in Vienna in a very musical family. His younger brother, Michael, also became a composer in his own right.
As a child, Franz was a Vienna choir boy, and then as a young man, he worked hard at learning how to compose. Later, he then , worked for the Esterházy family living with them on their remote estate. This job lasted several decades, and being quite removed from any large city Haydn said he was “forced to be original”. While there he mastered his craft, and also became internationally revered as a composer. He was best of friends with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart saying, “Mozart is the best composer I know”.
However, from between when Mozart died in 1791 until Ludwig Van Beethoven fully emerged as a composer in 1804 with his third symphony called the “Sinfonia Eroica”, F. Haydn was probably the greatest living composer in Europe. Sadly, today he along with his brother Michael even more, fly way under the radar today.
The symphony had already been used as material for a practical joke by the playful master when he wrote his “Farewell” symphony twenty years earlier, so when Haydn was spending time in London in 1792, his eyes lit up with another mischievous idea.
Franz had noted during his years with the Esterházy’s , that members of the royal court usually came to concerts after a big meal and would often nod off during the second (slow) movements of symphonies. Thus, he wrote the second movement of his symphony 94 in g major.
The movement is. marked andante, which means a walking tempo. The melody is light, mostly staccato, seemingly innocent, and the first eight measures have the dynamic marking of piano. The melody is then repeated at pianissimo and this time ends with a bang. The rest of the movement follows the classical form of theme and variations on the original theme, and some times, to my ears, sounds like a musical laugh or smirk. I’ve known the piece since early grade school when I was introduced to it by my first piano teacher Gretchen, and decades later it still makes me smile today.
The symphony as a whole all deserves to be listened to, I cordially invite you to check it out.
After his time in London, which he loved; Haydn returned to Vienna a wealthy man. Something totally unheard-of for a musician during that time.
Also around this time between his stays in England, Haydn became a teacher/mentor to the then young Beethoven. “I took instruction from Haydn, but didn’t learn anything” he said; but Ludwig still honored the aging composer with dedications of his first three piano sonatas.
It is actually not certain if Franz Joseph Haydn was born on March 31st or April 1st, but he preferred to celebrate it on the 31st. My first piano teacher Gretchen loved the music of Haydn very much, and ironically she also died on March 31st. No, that was not a joke, I really didn’t make that up; the symphony is way more tasteful of a joke than that could have ever ben.
Haydn’s music is as fresh now as it was back when he wrote it. Hopefully people will still be enjoying Haydn’s music, including his symphony 94 for another 200 years.