- Stravinsky wrote this symphony’s movements in four different places within three countries
- The composer himself felt that it had distinctly European and American aspects
- Decidedly neoclassical, Symphony in C all but ignores the modernist changes that were taking place in much of classical music
- Vibrant rhythms and quirky, colorful instrumentation mark this work as Stravinsky’s own
This unusual work, which Stravinsky composed as the shadow of impending war grew longer and darker, falls during a singular point in his personal life and his career. He composed its four movements in different places, which reflect the upheaval in the world around him and his own journey. The first movement dates from Paris in autumn 1938. That autumn, his daughter died from tuberculosis; his wife succumbed to the same disease four months later. Stravinsky had joined his wife at a sanatorium in Sancellemoz, Switzerland. There he wrote the Symphony’s second movement. Two months after he lost his wife, in June 1939, his mother died.
By then, he had accepted an invitation from the USA: to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard. With war imminent, and his family life shattered, it was a good time to be leaving Europe. The contract mandated that he reside in Boston from October 1939 through May 1940, but he was permitted to present the lectures in French. That winter he composed the third movement. By summer, he had left New England for California and was living in Beverly Hills. That summer, he completed the Symphony in C.
The commission for a symphony had come from Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss to commemorate the Chicago Symphony’s 50th anniversary. It was the second time she had turned to the expatriate Russian: he had written the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto for her in 1937-38. As it happens, he had already begun the Symphony in C, so her commission was well-timed for him. Stravinsky was on the podium to conduct the premiere in Chicago on 7 November 1940.
As a student, Stravinsky had written a Symphony in E-flat. Thereafter, he focused almost exclusively on stage works: ballets, operas, and the theatre piece L’histoire du soldat. Between the First and Second World Wars, he entered into what is usually called his ‘neoclassical’ period. He had been studying symphonies by Haydn, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky. In terms of structure, the Symphony in C takes a bow to tradition.
The first movement, in sonata form, is highly symmetrical, with an insistent initial motto and much repetition of principal theme. It is significant for uniformity of meter. Stravinsky reduces his orchestra for the Larghetto concertante, writing lovely solo passages for string quartet, oboe, and flute. It moves attacca [without pause] to the third movement Allegretto, cleverly metamorphosing the final notes of the slow movement. This scherzo is highly syncopated, with multiple metric shifts and a dance-like character that links it to Stravinsky’s ballets. A chorale-like conversation among bassoons, horns, and trombones introduces the finale. The principal theme focused on an ascending scale, but Stravinsky also reprises material from the first movement, giving the symphony a cyclic unity. By placing that theme in the lower register of the bassoon, he gives the conclusion gravitas. The Symphony ends almost like a hymn.
The score calls for two flutes, piccolo, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani and strings.
- Haydn wrote this symphony for the same French nobleman who commissioned his ‘Paris’ Symphonies
- Haydn brought this symphony to England when Oxford conferred him an honorary degree
- A quiet slow introduction precedes the Allegro, establishing an air of mystery
- Elaborate counterpoint demonstrates Haydn’s skill with fugal writing
- Listen for surprising cameos from flute and oboe in the slow movement
- A simple-sounding cello line launches the vivacious finale
The year he turned 58, Haydn embarked upon an altogether new chapter in his career that was to produce more than a dozen of his best-known and most beloved symphonies. After having spent three decades in the service of the Esterházy family, he was persuaded by the entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon to travel to England late in 1790. While Haydn's music had become well known throughout Europe and the British Isles, he himself had not travelled extensively. The English interludes proved to be the happiest and most productive period of his remarkable life. One of its richest legacies was the two series of symphonies Haydn composed for performance in London's Hanover Square Rooms.
Before these new works were introduced, however, Oxford University paid homage to the Austrian visitor by conferring an honorary doctorate upon him in July 1791. Haydn had insufficient time to compose and rehearse a new work for the occasion. Instead he provided a symphony written for Comte d'Ogny, the same French noble who had commissioned the series of six "Paris" Symphonies a couple of years earlier. The G-major symphony, No. 92, was thus new to England, although it technically belongs to a second "mini-series" of Paris symphonies (Nos. 90, 91 and 92). No. 92 has been known as the "Oxford" symphony ever since.
The work is distinguished by Haydn's sparkling orchestration, an abundance of counterpoint, and unusual modulations. It is also significant in its expansion of sonata form, which in the "Oxford" approaches the scope of Mozart's "Prague" Symphony, K.504 (1786). Both trumpets and timpani appear in the slow movement, emphasizing ceremonial character. Those two instruments also figure prominently in the lively finale, which merges madcap opera overture spirit with a quasi-military flavor. The standout movement in this magnificent work is surely its minuet/trio, however. In his landmark study The Classical Style, the eminent pianist and composer Charles Rosen observed:
The trio of the minuet is high farce: it is impossible for a listener not already in the know to guess where the first beat is at the beginning. . . . The orchestration is part of the joke, as the winds and strings seem to have different downbeats. Later, by the time the listener has caught on, Haydn shifts the accent, and introduces pauses long enough to throw him off again. This minuet is the greatest of all practical jokes in music.
Haydn's irrepressible high spirits suffuse the balance of the symphony as well. Moments of ceremony are balanced by passages of grace and delicacy. With consummate artistry and refreshing invention, Haydn both charms and amuses us in this superb symphony.
The score calls for flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets; timpani, and strings.
© Laurie Shulman, 2020