The story behind: Haydn's Farewell Symphony

7th February 2003 at 00:00
We may call it the Farewell Symphony, but Haydn himself didn't: the story behind this fiery work reflects a fascinating historical moment. To say that Joseph Haydn was a creature of habit is an understatement: for 30 years he presided over the orchestra of the Eszterhazy princes, writing and performing a steady stream of operas, quartets, and symphonies. Childless himself, he was greatly loved by his musicians, who called him "Papa" and brought him all their troubles.

As David Wynn Jones points out in Haydn (Oxford Composer Companions), they had what seems to us like an idyllic situation. Winter they spent at the princes' palace in Eisenstadt (now in Austria); Prince Nicholas, who was addicted to duck-shooting, built a summer palace in what is now the Hungarian town of Fertod. And that palace (still intact) was a gorgeous piece of architecture, full of incidental delights including a puppettheatre in a shell-lined grotto; the landscaped grounds were dotted with waterfalls and temples, and jumping with game.

But the marshy atmosphere bred mosquitos and induced fevers, and there was another more serious catch: the musicians earned good wages, but they were not encouraged to bring their wives and children on the summer jaunt, which lasted until the prince got tired of shooting and decided to return to Eisenstadt. In the autumn of 1772 Nicholas lingered longer than usual, and his musicians reached the end of their tether. Papa Haydn hit on a clever plan: since nobody dared complain, the symphony of the week would speak on their behalf. As the finale drew to its close, each player got up, snuffed out his candle, and walked out.

When the last muted notes of the second violin had died away, the prince got the message, and smilingly told Haydn that his men could pack up immediately and go home.

When the work is performed today - listen to it in the Hanover Band's recording on Hyperion CDA 66522 - the same ritual often takes place.

Actions speak louder than words.

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