Program Notes


BORN: March 31, 1732 (he was baptized on April 1). Rohrau, Lower Austria
DIED: May 31, 1809. Vienna

COMPOSED: 1794. London, England

WORLD PREMIERE: February 2, 1795. The performance practice of the time would have called for a keyboard continuo; at the work’s premiere, Haydn led the work from the pianoforte, at King’s Theatre, London

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—November 1930. Basil Cameron conducted. MOST RECENT—April 2002. Herbert Blomstedt conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 24 mins

THE BACKSTORY  In 1790, Haydn’s employer of nearly three decades, Prince Nicholas Esterházy, died and was succeeded by his son, Paul Anton. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. Haydn preferred the stability of a long-term appointment to the risk entailed in scurrying from one patron to another. But he was forced to make a career change when Paul Anton acceded to the throne. The new prince, it turned out, did not much care for music, and Haydn’s services would prove largely unnecessary to his court. As a result, Paul Anton granted Europe’s most admired composer a pension of a thousand florins a year; and though he kept Haydn on staff as his musical director, he made it clear that no particular duties—or even attendance—would be required. For the first time in decades, Haydn was free to explore.

Numerous invitations were forthcoming, and in the end it was the English impresario Johann Peter Salomon who prevailed to secure a Haydn tour. Haydn arrived in London on January 1, 1791 (following his first trip ever aboard a ship) and embarked on a leisurely schedule of music making and social appearances that included dinners with the Royal Family and the acceptance of a doctorate from Oxford University. He returned to Vienna in the summer of 1792 (stopping en route in Bonn to inspect some works proffered by a young composer named Beethoven). Haydn had enjoyed his time in England enormously, and he happily accepted a second invitation to visit London, in 1794. For these two residencies in England, Haydn consented to write a group of twelve symphonies (his nos. 93 through 104) that ever since have been dubbed the “London” or the “Salomon” symphonies. The works exhibit enormous diversity, and the set as a whole represents the apex of his symphonic achievement; and, if anything, the symphonies composed for Haydn’s second visit exceed the earlier ones in subtlety. The concerts of the second residency extended from February through May 1794, in the course of which London audiences cheered the premieres of Haydn’s symphonies nos. 99, 100 (the Military), and 101 (The Clock). At the final concert (on May 12), Salomon was pleased to inform the assembled crowd that Haydn had consented to stay in England for a further season. It appears that the composer may have been thinking of settling in London permanently. That was not surprising, given the esteem he was accorded at every turn, but an unanticipated reversal of circumstances made him reconsider. The music-hating Prince Paul Anton died abruptly, and his successor, Prince Nicholas II, immediately moved to restore the musical program to its former glory, reconfirming the importance of Haydn’s position as Capellmeister. Ever the loyal employee, Haydn consented to return to Austria at the conclusion of his London commitments in the 1795 season. In the meantime, he enjoyed his final year in England tremendously, traveling to high-society destinations, hobnobbing with the Royal Family and second-tier aristocrats, overseeing the publication of several works, composing new pieces (including some string quartets and his last three piano sonatas), and unveiling more smash-hit symphonies.

Another change occurred at just this time. For several practical reasons, Salomon resolved to stop producing his concert series and announced that its activities would be merged with a rival series that had been presented by the Opera. He didn’t stick by his decision for long, and in 1796 the Salomon Concerts were reinstated. But for the 1795 season, everything Salomon had in the pipeline moved into the domain of the Opera Concerts, and the directors of that series were delighted to support the three symphonies Haydn had on the way. The leader of the Opera Concerts was another violinist, the composer Giovanni Battista Viotti, who had been working in Paris until heads began to roll. Establishing himself in London in 1793, he presided over an impressive orchestra of sixty players. To Viotti fell the honor of introducing what would be Haydn’s final three symphonies, beginning with the Symphony No. 102 on February 2, 1795, the series’ opening night. It was one of those marathon concerts, dear to late-eighteenth-century audiences, that would surely fatigue the modern sitzfleisch (literally “sit-flesh,” describing the endurance of one to sit for long periods of time, and the opposite of “ants-in-your-pants”).

On that occasion an incident may have occurred that somehow became attached to the premiere of the Symphony No. 96 in 1791. In the words of the early Haydn biographer Albert Christoph Dies,

When Haydn appeared in the orchestra and sat down at the pianoforte to conduct a symphony himself, the curious audience in the parterre left their seats and crowded toward the orchestra, the better to see the famous Haydn quite close. The seats in the middle of the floor were thus empty, and hardly were they empty when the great chandelier crashed down and broke into bits, throwing the numerous gathering into great consternation. As soon as the first moment of fright was over and those who had pressed forward could think of the danger they had luckily escaped and find words to express it, several persons uttered the state of their feelings with loud cries of “Miracle! Miracle!” Haydn himself was deeply moved and thanked the merciful Providence that had allowed him in a certain way to be the cause of or the means of saving the lives of at least thirty people. Only a couple of persons received insignificant bruises.

I have heard this incident related in various ways and almost always with the addition that in London they conferred on this symphony the flattering name “The Miracle.” It may be that such is the case, but when I made inquiry of Haydn about the matter, he said, “I know nothing about it.”

Where the truth lies remains something of a mystery. Today the nickname Miracle is always attached to Haydn’s Symphony No. 96, but the meticulous Haydn biographer H.C. Robbins Landon says that “the chandelier fell in the last movement of No. 102 . . . ; thus another Haydn legend is proved false.” I cannot quite figure out how this could have happened in the last movement of a piece, when people could reasonably have been expected to be in their seats, as opposed to before the beginning, when they could credibly have crowded near the stage. Nonetheless, a report in the Morning Chronicle the following morning attests that “the last movement was encored: and notwithstanding an interruption by the accidental fall of one of the chandeliers, it was performed with no less effect.”

THE MUSIC  If the nickname Miracle (or any other nickname, for that matter) had become attached to this piece, it would probably be every bit as well known as the other nicknamed “London” symphonies (such as the Surprise, the Military, the Clock, or the Drumroll). It is one of the set’s finest, covering a broad emotional range that suggests witty Mozartian grace at one end and sober Beethovenian profundity at the other. The latter comes immediately to mind in the first movement’s dignified introduction, in which the orchestra’s winds roll in waves of octaves whose harmonic questing exalts mystery over transparency. Haydn brings us to the brink of the extraordinary music he would summon up shortly to serve as the “Representation of Chaos” in his oratorio The Creation. The body of the symphony’s opening movement—a Vivace—dispels these deep concerns, though attentive ears may discern that the violins’ lighthearted theme is derived from the mysterious music of the introduction. As the movement progresses, Haydn’s mischief makes itself known through startling fortissimo chords, sudden silences, unpredictable start-and-stop progressions, rhythmic syncopations, widely contrasting dynamics, and—in a canon that figures prominently in the complex development section—some high-flavored dissonances. One could profitably study the imagination with which Haydn deploys his themes in this highly evolved sonata-form movement, from the dovetailing of development with recapitulation (via a dramatic roll on the timpani) to the resurfacing of the first theme—its mood seeming more important than its notes themselves—in the brilliant coda that brings the movement to a dramatic conclusion.

The ensuing Adagio is tame by comparison, but in a most welcome way, given its heartfelt poignancy. Muted trumpets (a highly experimental sound for Haydn) with timpani, as well as high-pitched bassoons and (briefly) a solo cello, add an eerie touch of hushed solemnity. This music, essentially a sequence of free variations, also served Haydn as the haunting slow movement of his Piano Trio in F-sharp minor (Hob.XV:26), though there is some debate over which setting was the original and which the adaptation. It sounds perfectly natural in both settings, but, in truth, its spirit suggests nothing so much as the sort of florid, introspective, emotionally charged writing that infuses many keyboard solo of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.

The third-movement Minuet-and-Trio serves as an object lesson about Haydn’s central position between the styles of Mozart and Beethoven (especially the Beethoven of the Fourth Symphony). Its trio displays the sweet harmony-in-sixths and the elegant chromatic embellishment of the former while the minuet proper exhibits a gruff, folksy humor that looks ahead to Beethoven’s third-movement scherzos.

The Finale presses a Croatian folk song into use as its principal subject and concludes with a display of the sort of musical joke that was Haydn’s trademark: The first violins, running into a block of some sort, stutter away valiantly without managing to articulate the theme quite correctly. Haydn lets them suffer awhile, much like an unfortunate schoolchild who has forgotten the poem he is trying to recite, before loudly introducing the rest of the orchestra to steer them back on track and towards a high-spirited conclusion.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 


Recordings: Bruno Walter conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical)  |  Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical)  |  Colin Davis conducting the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips)  |   Sigiswald Kuijken conducting La Petite Bande (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi)

ReadingHaydn: Chronicle and Works, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Indiana University Press), of which Volume Three (Haydn in England, 1791-1795) covers the period of the Symphony No. 102  |  The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Barrie and Rockliff)  |  Haydn’s Visits to England, by Christopher Hogwood (The Folio Society)

(May 2018)

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