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Joseph Haydn

Born: March 31, 1732 in Rohrau, Austria

Died: May 31, 1809 in Vienna, Austria

Symphony N.95 'Surprise'

Composed: 1791

Premiered: March 23, 1792 at Hanover Square Rooms in London with the composer leading the orchestra

Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony is one of his most popular symphonies, not least because of an endearing musical “joke”—a sudden tutti explosion—in the beginning of the otherwise well-mannered second movement. While this little prank highlights Haydn’s famously jovial and sometimes childlike nature, little known is the fact that he wrote this genial work in a state of disquiet, prompted by the public’s desire to be entertained by a new rivalry between the celebrated composer and his former student. 

Haydn’s arrival in London in 1791 caused quite a stir in the British musical circle. The impresario Johann Peter Salomon had traveled to Germany to fetch Haydn as soon as the composer was released from his nearly 30-year-long service at Ésterhazy. When efforts to recruit Haydn failed, the Professional Concerts (the London subscription concert series) engaged Haydn’s former pupil Ingaz Pleyel to be their composer-in-residence. Their goal was to coax the older composer to perform at their concerts, but this set up only drove him to wholeheartedly focus on winning the hearts of the London audience. Pleyel was young, exciting, and extremely prolific. Haydn, fully aware of the partisanships being formed around him and his own student, was intent on not letting Pleyel outshine him. 

In a fiercely competitive spirit, Haydn announced that he would compose twelve new pieces. He delivered this promise, but at a cost. He confided to his friend Marianne, “I could easily perceive that a lot of people were dead set against me. . .. In order to keep my promise and to support poor Salomon, I must be the victim and work perpetually.

I do feel it, however, very much. My eyes suffer most, and I have many sleepless nights.” Haydn complained on another occasion, “Never in my life have I written so much in one year as during the last, and it has indeed utterly exhausted me.” Amazingly, his fatigue is nowhere to be heard in the spirited “Surprise” Symphony, or in any of his other works from the period. And, quite ironically, the twelve London Symphonies, plus the thirteenth, “Oxford,” are now considered the pinnacle of Haydn’s symphonic output.

Some features to listen for... 

During his London period, Haydn had come to prefer certain formal devices in his symphonies. One is the slow, lyrical introduction in the first movement, usually followed by noticeably faster and energetic music. This feature reflects Haydn’s sensitivity to the local musical taste and aspirations to gain the approval of his audience. In the London symphonies, he had transformed his symphonies from courtly entertainment to public spectacle, and he fully understood that the concert-goers of London were highly literate in music, capable of appreciating the  games of musical suspensions and surprises. In the “Surprise” Symphony, the first movement begins as Adagio cantabile 3/4 and then moves to Vivace assai in 6/8. 

The second movement has the famous joke: at the end of the repetition of the main theme, which is played by the strings only in a piano and then pianissimo dynamic, the full orchestra strikes a blow. Many have reasoned, based on Haydn’s own explanation, that it was intended to startle and wake up the London audiences, who often came to concerts after heavy meals and started dozing off once the music began. Yet, the real surprise of the movement may be the somewhat melancholy conclusion after the march-like music. 

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

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