Symphony No. 95 in C minor (1791)
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Although Haydn spent much of his career as a court musician at the remote estate of the wealthy Esterházy family, his music was well known outside the estate. By 1790, the year of the death of Prince Nikolaus I, Haydn was arguably the most sought-after composer in Europe. When the news spread that Haydn was now able to present his music outside Esterházy, the London-based violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon traveled to Germany at once to invite Haydn to move to London. Haydn accepted the lucrative offer. He was confident of his success in the new place: when his friend Mozart worriedly questioned Haydn’s ability to communicate in English, he replied, “my language is understood all over the world.”   

Haydn arrived in London on New Year’s Day of 1791 and immediately began working on new works for Salomon’s concert series. Symphony No. 95 is one of the six symphonies Haydn wrote for his first two seasons in London (Nos. 93-98 are the first set of the “London” symphonies; he would write six more symphonies for his next London seasons between 1794 and 1795). The London symphonies were the first works he wrote for paying audiences, not for a royal patron; also, for the first time, his works were reviewed by the press in daily music criticism. Being aware of these new circumstances, Haydn abandoned some of the challenging styles he had employed in his late symphonies up to No. 92. Yet, the London symphonies, reflecting Haydn’s musical ambitions in facing fresh talents in the new city, are his grandest and finest achievements in the genre. The splendid success of the concert series of 1791 brought Haydn still greater fame and popularity.

Symphony No. 95 is scored for one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. The inclusion of the timpani and trumpets was a novelty for the London symphonies, an indication that these instruments were newly available for Haydn. Symphony No. 95 lacks a slow introduction, unlike all other London symphonies. It is also the only work of all of the twelve London symphonies in the minor key. While the minor key brings back the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) touch, Haydn lightens the mood by resolving C minor and C major together, a strategy he attempted unsuccessfully in his previous C-minor symphony, No. 78. Besides such distinctions, the work is in a standard four-movement scheme, comprising an allegro sonata first movement, a slow and lyrical second movement, a minuetto and trio, and a vivace finale.

The first movement opens with a forceful blow, a five-note unison motive that accentuates the unsettling interval of a tritone. That head motif is followed, after dramatic silence, by softer music of dotted-rhythm by the strings; these two contrasting ideas together form the primary theme. Transitional music based on the primary theme leads to a contrastingly sweet and dance-like secondary theme in the relative major key of E-flat. The development section is heavily based on the angular head of the primary theme. To counterbalance the favoring of the head motive, Haydn begins the recapitulation with the second half of the first theme, that of the dotted-rhythm. The secondary theme is restated in C major, ending the movement on a brighter note.

In the E-flat major Andante movement, strings take the center stage, with woodwinds appearing primarily for color. The movement is theme and variations, alternating between gracious music and its more stately reinterpretations. The Minuetto in C minor is a courtly dance, its imposing quality matched by the unusual lengthiness of the theme. The C-major Trio has elegant solo cello music, a choice likely driven by Haydn’s discovery of the London musicians’ individual talents. The finale’s lighthearted opening music soon turns explosive as the two bars of the main theme are manipulated into an extensive counterpoint. There is nothing unnatural or contrived about this swift blossoming of the cheery initial motive into a magnificent celebration. Thanks to this impressive efficiency, the climax in fortissimo C minor section is made both highly anticipated and satisfying. The musical grandeur of the symphony befits the work’s significant place in Haydn’s musical career, that as the herald of the start of his new artistic phase.

- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department