Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 87


Haydn composed his set of six ‘Paris’ symphonies between 1785 and 1786. A product of a prestigious foreign commission from the Comte d’Ogny (a French Nobleman), this set of symphonies are influential due to their rich musical language and obvious shift in Haydn’s compositional style.

This time in Haydn’s life showed a shift into what is now known as his ‘mature period’. So, how does an Austrian composer, who had worked most of his life in a private estate in Hungary, become so popular in Paris – a country that he never visited? Forward compositional thinking and innovativeness is what set Haydn apart from his French contemporaries.

Concert series in Paris became fewer and farther between, so they looked further afield ato other European composers. Haydn was a stable composer, with a large output – a perfect candidate for a regular place in a concert series. Thus with Haydn’s symphonies beginning to dominate French concert programmes in the mid-1780s, a dramatic drop in other European composers became evident. This made Haydn’s impact that bit more influential, with him becoming the model for many European symphonists at the time.

As aforementioned, Symphonies 82-87 were a result of a expensive commission from the Comte d’Ogny, on behalf of his newly-founded public concert series: Concert de la Loge Olympique. The orchestra that played for this concert series was much larger than what Haydn was used to working with whilst working at Eszterháza. This allowed him to expand and develop his symphonic style in a number of ways.

Although this change in style was arguably to make his symphonies more marketable to a wider audience, this played in Haydn’s favour as his music was published and distributed around Europe. The concert series also subsequently commissioned Haydn to compose symphonies 90-92 between 1788-1789. Haydn had created a new international dimension to his career, and this set of symphonies were the defining change. 

Although often performed in numerical order in the modern day, Haydn did not compose this set of symphonies in numerical order. Haydn actually composed them in the following order:

Symphony No. 87 in A major (1785)

Symphony No. 85 ‘La Reine’ (‘The Queen’) in Bb major (1785)

Symphony No. 83 ‘La Poule’ (‘The Hen’) in G minor (1785)

Symphony No. 84 ‘In Nomine Domini’ in Eb major (1786)

Symphony No. 86 in D major (1786)

Symphony No. 82 ‘The Bear’ in C major


The Music

The last of the numerical set, but the first to be composed, Symphony No. 87 embodies the popular style that was in demand from European audiences in the mid-1780s. Presented in four movements, Symphony No. 87 is a festive and celebratory work.


Movement I: ‘Vivace’

Beginning in a bright A major, the first movement, marked ‘Vivace’, sets the scene for the whole symphony. The grandeur of this symphony may also be related to the idea of starting this commissioned set with a work of popular appeal. The first subject of No. 87 reflects the grand style of ‘festive’ symphonies, due to the bright major key, dynamic, and tutti markings throughout the orchestra. A sense of momentum is felt at the beginning, with a driving quaver motif in the bassoon and lower string parts that are carefully interwoven with the accompaniment parts. For the whole first section of this work the orchestra’s dynamics are loud, but once the second subject takes over the dynamic comes right down to a quiet marking.

The harmony is rather straightforward in this movement, with the emphasis being on the texture, rather than harmony. Haydn moves between the tonic and dominant to reinstate themes, and aid the changes in texture. Harmonic movement is used as a tool to make changes to the melodic material, which creates intensity within the music. This movement then comes to a close with a triumphant tonic A major chord.


Movement II: ‘Adagio’

The second movement, which is slower than the first, focuses on an concertante style of writing. The style of this movement is accentuated through Haydn’s woodwind writing, which support the style and structure of the movement. The solo oboe line sings above the orchestra in this movement, and the thin string accompaniment texture is delicate and gives room for the solo oboe to present the solo melodic line.

Haydn fully utilises sonata form in this movement, and pushes structural boundaries by featuring cadenza-like sections, which lead to a general pause, and subsequently a cadence on a 6-4 chord. This nods to the concerto form, which were actually very popular in Paris. Harmonically, again, this movement is quite simple, with the emphasis on the rich melodies from the soloists, the decorative woodwind writing, and exciting and innovative cadenza-like passages.


Movement III: Menuet and Trio

A short menuet and trio is the basis of the third movement of Symphony No. 87 – which encompasses the structural tradition of the symphonic form. One of the main focal points of this movement is the oboe solo in trio, which, unlike any other oboe solo Haydn wrote, goes up to a top E note. This sense of virtuosity and pushing instrumental boundaries all comes back to the idea of Haydn writing for a new public audience, and essentially mixing different genres of instrumental writing to create the ultimate popular symphony genre for the masses. This movement is sophisticated and shows Haydn’s flair for writing for solo instruments. The balanced textures and tonic-dominant movement highlight how contained and controlled this movement is.


Movement IV: Finale 

The Finale movement is a monothematic sonata highlights Haydn’s developmental techniques and his re-use of certain themes. This upbeat movement ends the symphony as it began – in the tonic key of A major. The intricate rhythmic writing from Haydn builds up tension and excitement, and would certainly have been very popular at the time of its premiere. The movement is full of energy and determination, and is an exciting way to end (but open) this set of symphonies.


Final Thoughts

The conventionality of Symphony No. 87 resonated with the popular taste that was evidently desired from concert goers. Haydn’s chief musical judgement and characterisation of No. 87, makes this symphony one of the most popular in the set. Although Haydn had little or no prior experience composing for an international public audience, his efforts resulted in a sophisticated and virtuosic set of symphonies that became popular very quickly. These symphonies started Haydn’s international take over, as he went on to write many more symphonies in Austria, London and Hungary.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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