Haydn, Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp-minor, “Farewell”

Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809

Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp-minor, “Farewell”, 1772

During the thirty years Haydn served the Esterházy family, he almost singlehandedly evolved and perfected two extraordinary genres of which he is generally known as the father: the symphony and the string quartet. In the case of the symphony, he was not the originator nor hardly the only practitioner, but his prodigiousness, originality and excellence place Haydn far ahead of any predecessors or contemporaries save Mozart who was, chronologically and historical second after Haydn. Of his 104 symphonies, so many are well-known and beloved that they bear popular nicknames: “Surprise”, “Drum Roll”, “Miracle”, “Clock”, “Queen”, “Bear” and so on. The so-called “Farewell” symphony derives its name from its unique finale and the story, possibly apocryphal, that lead Haydn to compose it.

Prince Nikolaus built an elaborate castle at Esterháza near the Austro-Hungarian border some distance from Vienna and his normal residence at Eisenstadt. The prince grew fond of this second Versailles so that the part of the year in which he and his retinue stayed there grew long and longer. The musicians naturally traveled with the prince but were not permitted to bring their families; they felt isolated at Esterháza, which was situated on a vast, isolated marshland. After a particularly long sojourn seemed interminable, the musicians asked Haydn to interceded on their behalf. At the next musical performance before the price, Haydn presented his new symphony in the dark and rare key of F-sharp-minor with an apparent message in the last movement. On the tails of a brisk presto finale, the music abruptly stops, starting afresh with a new adagio, an odd surprise disarming the expected conclusion. A simple, charming promenade tune plays while, one by one, the musicians extinguish their candles and exit until there are but two violinists left to finish the symphony with an intimate, lonely little chamber duo. Nikolaus was supposed to have said, “Well, if they all leave I suppose we had better leave too,” and the next day they all returned to Vienna. Whether this really happened, the music really works that way in one of the several creative formal experiments Haydn conducted during his “Sturm und drang” period.

The opening movement is turbulent with a restless urgency characteristic of the “Storm and Stress” movement that swept all the European arts in the 1760’s and 1770’s. Here, Haydn provided a prototype for the shadowy angst eventually associated with Mozart. The second movement adagio (the real one) moves at a moderate pace in a brighter major mode, but the muted strings and the brief flickering of minor tonalities create a slightly unsettling effect. The third movement minuet offers a point of repose (despite a loud, unexpected diminished chord) including a trio highlighting the warm open intervals of mellow horns (slightly stained with still more flashes of something disturbing). The last movement confirms these uneasy hints with a suitably driven and stormy finale until, of course, the legendary “farewell” sweetens the final impression with a delicately whispered “goodbye.” It may simply be, cute story aside, that Haydn could only risk the queer, alien effects of F-sharp-minor by cancelling its gloom with an unforgettably ingenious antidote as a conclusion.

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