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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off
Richard Taruskin

The theme is cast in as regular and symmetrical a binary structure as Haydn ever employed: thirty-two bars in all, cast in repeated parallel periods (the first eight bars reaching a half cadence and then repeated; the second eight, beginning similarly, achieving full closure and then repeated). Haydn actually sketched the theme out as a pair of eight-bar phrases with repeats (see Fig. 10-10). But then he got another idea (Ex. 10-8a), one of his most famous inspirations.

What throws all symmetry out of whack (and the word is chosen advisedly) is the big thump at the end of m. 16. It comes at the least expectable place, the off beat of the last bar of an eight-bar phrase. That beat is unaccented at no fewer than five metrical levels: the measure of which it is an unaccented part is the unaccented member of a pair with its predecessor; that pair of measures is the unaccented member of a pair with its two-bar predecessor; that group of four measures is the unaccented member of a pair with its four-bar predecessor; and the whole resultant eight-bar phrase is the unaccented repetition of the movement’s opening eight-bar phrase. Haydn has bent even further over backward to lull the listener into a state of complacency by marking the repetition of the opening phrase at a softer dynamic level (pianissimo, a direction he used only for special effects), by removing the second violins from the melody line, and by having the three lower parts plucked rather than bowed, all of which made it necessary to write all sixteen bars out in full rather than relying on a repeat sign as in the first draft.

Variation And DevelopmentVariation And Development

ex. 10-7g Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony no. 94 in G (“Surprise”), I, mm. 218–228

The sudden blast is marked forte in the winds, fortissimo in the strings, and beefed up into “triple stops” (three-note chords) in the two violin parts. Most unusually, even recklessly, the timpani part is marked fortissimo, practically insuring that the drumbeat will drown all the other instruments out. And such seems to have been the calculation: the symphony is actually called Symphonie mit dem Paukenschlag (“Symphony with that kettledrum stroke”) in German. The English sobriquet was given it almost immediately after the first performance. The Oracle, a London newspaper, reported the next morning that

Act 2nd opened with a first performance of the GRAND OVERTURE composed by HAYDN for that evening. The Second Movement was equal to the happiest of this great Master’s conceptions. The surprise might not be unaptly likened to the situation of a beautiful Shepherdess who, lulled to slumber by the murmur of a distant Waterfall, starts alarmed by the unexpected firing of a fowling- piece.11

It was Andrew Ashe, the first flutist in Salomon’s orchestra, who claimed responsibility for the actual nickname. In a memoir set down in 1803, he wrote of the symphony that “I christened it the Surprise when I announced it for my Benefit Concert & my valued friend Haydn thank’d me for giving it such an appropriate Name.”12

Variation And Development

fig. 10-10 Haydn’s surpriseless original sketch for the Andante of Symphony no. 94.

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ex. 10-8a Franz Joseph Haydn, Symphony no. 94 in G (“Surprise”), II, mm. 1–16

People speculated wildly as to the reason for the strange event. There was certainly call for such speculation, since the big noise was (to put it mildly) “introversively underdetermined.” There was nothing to motivate it from within; it pointed to nothing else in the score (except, perhaps, ironically). And so an extroversive explanation was sought. The reviewer for the Oracle accounted for it, as we have seen, by inventing a story for it to “imitate.” A more general opinion was that it was meant to awaken sleepers in the hall. Dies, one of Haydn’s biographers, is probably responsible for its spread in subsequent accounts (including some versions in which it is old Prince Esterházy, two years dead by then, whom Haydn is supposedly nudging out of slumber). Griesinger, the competing biographer, put the matter to Haydn in an interview:

I asked him once in jest if it were true that he wrote the Andante with the kettledrum beat in order to waken the English public that had gone to sleep at his concert. “No,” he answered me. “Rather it was my wish to surprise the public with something new, and to make a début in a brilliant manner so as not to be outdone by my pupil [Ignaz] Pleyel, who at that time was engaged by an orchestra in London which had begun its concert series eight days before mine.”13

In this very plausible anecdote, the big surprise was motivated as a sort of practical joke, or what we would now call a publicity stunt, to get people talking or (more likely) writing in the papers, and to outshine an upstart competitor. What makes the story plausible is the way it embodies a response to circumstances—for Haydn, new circumstances that would increasingly come to characterize the social and economic aspects of European music making in the new nineteenth century. Concert life—first of all in England, where in 1792 it was not at all a new thing, but everywhere soon enough—would henceforth function as something of a free market, in which composers had not only to address large crowds but to lure them, and in which professional reviewers acted as middlemen, mediating on behalf of artists (or against them!) and influencing public taste. The role and the function of arts criticism as we know it today were the creations of the English public and of the professional concert life that first got under way in England, and Haydn was one of the early objects of its ministrations. He was first of all its beneficiary, but he was not unaffected by its influence, since we are perhaps most easily influenced by those who praise us (and pay us).

Thus Haydn’s “surprise” was an amiable early symptom of change to a new rhetorical manner that arose from a new musical ecosystem, conditioning a radical augmentation in the sheer dimensions of symphonic music and also a revolution in its content, which was increasingly likely to embody extroversive (or, in contemporary language, “characteristic”) references.

As to the further progress of Haydn’s slow movement, one particular variation should be singled out for the neat way it delineates the difference between “variation” and “development” as ways of elaborating on themes. That variation is the second, cast in the parallel minor. Despite the changed mode, the first half of it hardly differs from the preceding variation, wherein the theme, given to the second violin, had acted as a cantus firmus against which the first violin (doubled once at the octave by the flute) contributed a “division” or filigree counterpoint. That is an unusually simple and old-fashioned sort of variation, but in its simplicity it illustrates the essential characteristic of the variation genre, namely adherence to the basic shape—the phrase structure and the harmonic trajectory—of the theme.

Just so, the first half of the minor-mode variation hews closely to the rhythmic and tonal shape of the theme. It is the same eight bars in length; the caesuras come at the same place, and its cadential destination is the same, making allowance for the changed mode (III rather than V being the usual half-cadence point in the minor). The second half of the variation might have been written to the same prescription: it might have started on E♭ or its dominant, had a caesura after four measures on the dominant of C minor, and made full closure on the tonic in the eighth measure. That would have been the normal, predictable procedure.

Instead, Haydn begins the second half on E♭, all right, but he aims it at the original dominant (G) rather than the tonic; and once having reached it, draws it out for its suspense value, as one might do in a “retransition” before a double return. Thus the whole variation is cast retrospectively as tonally “open” and unstable: it begins in one place and ends in another, on a note of unresolved tension that must await resolution in the next variation. The second half is unrepeated and asymmetrical in phrase structure. With a length of eighteen measures, it can only be parsed into pairs once before hitting an unreducible (odd) number. It contains no regular caesuras; rather, its one caesura, separating the main body of the section from the single-line “drawing-out” of the dominant, divides its 18 bars into 13 + 5, two prime numbers. Above all, it does not reproduce the melody of the theme as such but rather plays upon a motive extracted from it, tossed sequentially between the bass and viola parts (see Ex. 10-8b) to sustain the harmonic momentum.

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ex. 10-8b Comparison of the opening of Ex. 10-8a with its “development” in the minor variation

All of these traits—harmonic instability, asymmetry of phrase structure, thematische Arbeit (extraction and recombination of motives)—are traits that collectively describe the “development,” as opposed to the mere “variation,” of themes. Haydn certainly recognized this distinction and traded on it. The sudden introduction of restless and exciting developmental writing into the placid confines of a variations movement was another glorious surprise, no less worthy of immortality than the redoubtable kettledrum stroke. It serves further to “symphonicize”—to make impressively public and rhetorical—the music of a “subscription symphony,” which was becoming an increasingly monumental genre.

Once the tonic is regained at m. 75 it is never again challenged; in compensation, however, the variations become ever quirkier and more “surprising.” The nattering oboe solo at m. 75, for example, holds good only for half of a binary half, so to speak: just the first “A” out of AABB. Instead of being repeated, it is replaced at m. 83 by another “cantus firmus” variation, in which the original theme is played by the violins to support a woodwind obbligato. That texture then holds good for both B phrases, getting us as far as m. 107, where a pair of “sandwich” variations begins. The big and brassy tutti, led by the violins in sextolets, is dropped after eight measures in favor of an utterly contrasting idea marked pianissimo e dolce (very soft and sweet). The soft and sweet idea continues into the B phrase, but the big and brassy tutti is resumed for conclusion, thus: AabB, where capital letters stand for big-and-brassy and small letters for soft-and-sweet. The coda, derived (that is, “developed”) from the “A” material, harbors one last surprise: the use of soft but very dissonant harmony (dominant-ninth chords on tonic and dominant over a tonic pedal) to lend an air of uncanny poignancy.


(11) Quoted in Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. III, p. 150.

(12) Quoted in Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. III, p. 149.

(13) Griesinger, Biographische Notizen, p. 32.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Jan. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10013.xml