About this work
Originally, and more accurately, titled "Concertante," Haydn composed this essay in multiple concerto form while a visitor in London in the 1790s, the same period during which he produced his well-known "London" Symphonies. The Sinfonia concertante (1792), scored for oboe, bassoon, violin, cello, and orchestra, is the only real work of its kind that Haydn ever penned (though several earlier symphonies do contain extended passages for solo instruments). Haydn wrote the work at the urging of violinist and impresario Johann Salomon, who had been instrumental in bringing Haydn to London and who also played the violin part at the premiere.
The work opens with a somewhat relaxed Allegro whose dimensions, perhaps to accomodate four soloists, exceed those of the usual Classical sonata-allegro movement. The principal theme is a lively thought broken into two halves; the first reaches upward expectantly, while the second winds its way back down, sparkling with a few simple ornaments. Haydn is characteristically unpredictable in his use of sonata/concerto form: The solo instruments begin to enter well before the opening tutti has reached its end. The tutti is finally completed with a decisive tonic cadence, at which point the true solo narratives begin. Uncharacteristically for Haydn, the long development section is saturated by the minor mode. The cadenza to the first movement is the composer's own; Haydn evidently and wisely realized that for four players to successfully improvise a cadenza would have been folly.
The Andante is even more original in its formal conception than the opening Allegro. Here, the four soloists are accompanied only by strings and a reduced complement of winds. Only once, deep in the middle of the movement, do all four soloists drop out and allow the orchestra a brief interlude. The movement, mainly an extended conversation among the soloists, comes across as large-scale chamber music -- so much so that the above-mentioned orchestral ritornello, though only four measures long, seems something of an unwanted intrusion into the soloists' private conversation.
There is no Menuet in the Sinfonia concertante, evidence that the influence of the concerto upon the work is more pervasive than that of the symphony. The finale opens with the traditional, spirited rondo theme, but before long it too delves into unconventionalities: the solo violin interrupts the texture with a decidedly operatic passage marked "Recitative, adagio." This surprising passage eventually winds its way back to the movement proper, which continues in a light, humorous manner, engaging the soloists in virtuoso pyrotechnics.
In Haydn's own time the Sinfonia concertante did not enjoy the immediate and enduring success of the "London" Symphonies, and in the nineteenth century it fell largely into obscurity. The twentieth century brought a renewed interest in the work, however, particularly in the decades following World War II, and it has since enjoyed a renewed life in the concert hall.