Symphony No.98

Joseph Haydn

Symphony No.98 in Bb major

Hob. I/98

About this work

The first of Haydn's two excursions to London began in December of 1790 and was, by all accounts, a great success. He remained in London for two concert seasons, returning to Vienna in July 1792. The composer wrote six new symphonies for the concert series; these are now numbered 93-98, the first six of the so-called "London" symphonies.

The general atmosphere of Haydn's Symphony No. 98 is drastically different from that of the first four "London" symphonies. The highly profound nature of the work may be Haydn's response to the death of Mozart (on December 5, 1791) in Vienna, while Haydn was in London. Haydn was clearly stunned, later writing to Michael Puchberg, a friend who had also been very close to Mozart, "For some time I was beside myself about his death, and I could not believe that Providence would so soon claim the life of such an indispensable man."

Haydn's scoring for the symphony is somewhat unusual, requiring one flute plus two each of oboe, bassoon, horn, and trumpet, with timpani, strings and harpsichord obbligato. A weighty, portentous introduction actually contains the main theme of the ensuing movement, but the tempo is so slow that the melody in the introduction sounds more like an outline of harmonies than a theme. Many of Haydn's slow introductions contain such references to the theme of the first movement, and his ability to present this material without it sounding like the actual beginning of the symphony is one of his greatest achievements. The first movement proper is in sonata form and boasts a muscular power that was hitherto unknown in Haydn's output.

The most striking aspect of the Symphony No. 98 is the Adagio second movement. Here we find a depth of feeling that stands in stark contrast to the lightweight slow movements of the previous "London" symphonies. Haydn's grief seems to come to the fore in the contemplative movement.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the Haydn's Symphony No. 98 is something we rarely hear: an 11-measure keyboard passage just before the end of the work, marked "Haydn solo" and accompanied by pizzicato strings. This was omitted from every edition of the piece published during the composer's lifetime except in arrangements for piano quintet and piano trio, where it is sometimes given to the violin. We know Haydn directed the "London" symphonies from the keyboard, as was common in performances of orchestral works, and the use of a harpsichord or fortepiano on such occasions was both a way of keeping the ensemble together and a nod to a stubborn tradition. By the 1790s the need for a keyboard instrument to fill in harmonies during an orchestral performance had diminished to the point that it was unnecessary -- the instrument was seen more than heard -- and Haydn's insertion of a solo for the instrument at the end of a large piece is one of his most humorous strokes.

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