About this Piece
By 1790 Haydn was no longer in service to the Esterházy family. His longtime patron, Prince Nicolaus, had died, leaving Haydn a handsome pension while he maintained some connection with the court. However, the new Prince, Anton, although he increased Haydn's pension, dismissed the entire musical establishment, leaving Haydn with little to do. So, the composer moved to Vienna.
Abundant job offers came his way, but nearing 60, famous and secure financially, the composer decided that he had no need to seek another permanent appointment. Thus, he accepted the most beguiling of the many commissions he was offered: for a half-dozen symphonies, ordered by Johann Peter Salomon of London, impresario, violinist, and conductor of his own orchestra, reportedly England's finest.
Haydn was treated like royalty - or at least like Europe's greatest composer - upon his arrival in England at the beginning of 1791 for a residency during which the first set of Salomon's symphonies, Nos. 93-98, would be presented. Later, another series of six - the rest of the 12 so-called "London Symphonies" - was composed in Vienna. Haydn returned to a breathlessly expectant London in February of 1794. The English were not disappointed.
The last symphony, the present work, to which alone among the 12 the name "London" has become particularly attached, was first heard on April 13, 1795, and was also the main event of Haydn's London farewell concert, for his own benefit, three weeks later. Of the latter, Haydn recorded in his diary: "The hall was filled with a picked audience. The whole company was delighted and so was I. I took in this evening 4000 gulden. One can make as much as this only in England." It should be noted that by this time Salomon was no longer able to afford his own series and Haydn had become associated with another presenter.
Whether or not Haydn had decided that this would be his last symphony - which it is - everything about it projects the feeling of a "statement," including the boldly decisive, symmetrical introduction, as distinct from the improvisatory feeling Haydn conveys in similar circumstances elsewhere: two portentous D-minor episodes framing a smaller one in the key of F major. The dark drama nonetheless gives way to something quite different (otherwise it wouldn't be Haydn, master of the unexpected), a charging, joyous Allegro.
Reversing the procedure, the Adagio begins with an innocent, lilting G-major melody in the first violins, which darkens almost imperceptibly as the other strings enter, then changes its personality as the winds play a little lament, whereupon the whole orchestra bursts out in (minor-key) fury.
The burly minuet has a particularly jaunty trio, dominated by solo oboe and bassoon, while the grand finale - to London and to Haydn, the symphonist - is a potpourri of Slavonic folk tunes which Haydn heard during his years on the Esterházy estates. The opening theme had long been thought of as a London tribute, quoting from the street-song "Hot Cross Buns," but in recent years has been identified as "Oj Jelena," a ballad sung by the Croatians living in Eisenstadt when Haydn made his home there.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.