Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 103 ‘Drumroll’


Joseph Haydn was born in 1732 in Rahrau, Austria, where he was brought up listening to and performing folk-music. As he grew up he showed musical talent, and his parents sent him away to be trained as a professional musician. After struggling as a freelance musician, Haydn took the job as Kapellmesiter (musical director) at the grand palace of Esterháza in Hungary.

During this time Haydn had many responsibilities, including composition, running the residential orchestra and playing in chamber groups and because of this he ended up writing a mass of compositions. Due to Prince Nikolaus passing away in 1790, his son Anton was the next heir in line to Esterháza, and with this power he dismissed most of the court musicians and kept Haydn on a lower pay income. As Haydn wasn’t needed as much in the palace, Anton allowed him to travel.

Haydn then made two separate trips to London, where some of his most famous works were written, which include the Drumroll, London and Surprise symphonies.

The Music

Symphony No.103 was Haydn’s penultimate work and was written while he was in London between 1794-95. The reception towards Haydn in London was incredibly enthusiastic and people really connected with his music. Symphony 103 was premiered on the 2nd March 1795, at The Kings Theatre in London as a part of a concert series entitled ‘Opera Concerts.’

The symphony is written for 60 players, which was unusually large for the time. The reception for this work was very positive, with many reviewers calling it another triumph for the father of the symphony.

Movement I

The first movement is in sonata form, but with a long introduction. The nickname ‘drumroll’ derives itself from the opening timpani drum roll, which was an incredibly imaginative feature at this time. Following this opening we hear a slow, mysterious melody played by the cellos, double basses and the bassoon. With use of chromaticism, Haydn is able to create an eerie sound which was also an innovative technique for the time.

The allegro con spirito section that follows is full of life and captures Haydn’s orchestral style of composing. Written in 6/8 time, the movement is bright in humour and the themes played by the oboes and first violins introduce new themes, which Haydn then develops further. Strangely though, the slow introduction returns after the first general pause within the development section.

The change in tone here is prominent and is a resonant recap that takes us back into the development section. The biggest twist is still to come though in the coda section at the end, where the drum roll returns and a part of the introduction is heard once more.


Movement II

The second movement is a double variation movement, with Haydn playing around with the keys C major and C minor. The movement starts fairly slow and we hear an angular dotted-semi quaver melody. This movement focuses a lot on the strings, with the double basses being written bottom C’s (usually their lowest notes are E) and a lovely violin solo being written in for the principal player. The winds offer some pretty embellishments within this movement, especially the flute who has some lovely lines of decoration.

Haydn builds the tension nearer the end of this movement by writing in some more semi-quaver movement in the basses and by varying some previous material. The movement ends on a strong tonic C major chord.


Movement III

The third movement is a minuet and trio in Eb major, which is quaint and nice to listen to. The theme is based on a Croatian folk-dance, which emphasises Haydn’s travels and his experience. The minuet has a long development and recapitulation sections which really hone in on the cute little melodies that Haydn has written. The trio is set in the same form as the minuet, with the woodwinds now doubling with the strings to make more of a statement sound. This movement has been likened to a music box, with its layering of woodwind sounds and the way Haydn handles his themes within the orchestra.


Movement IV

Starting with the famous horn call, Haydn uses this as the basis of the movement, with the strings adding accompaniment upon the second play of the call. Haydn creates a neat little canon by b.28, which makes a thicker texture and builds the piece up on that pedal note played by the double basses. Haydn’s use of passing modulations, suspensions and high ranges of instruments makes this movement all the more exciting. With chromatic harmony creeping in once more, we see Haydn creating an incredibly colourful movement which is brilliant to listen to.

The movement is in sonata-rondo form and the second episode within the rondo section is one of my favourites as it sees the coming together of the string section and letting the woodwinds take over with recurring themes. To create the thrill at the end of this movement, Haydn stretches the violins to very high notes which creates suspense and excitement.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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