Haydn: Symphony No. 82, The Bear

When Franz Josef Haydn received a letter from Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, inviting him to write six symphonies for the orchestra Bologne conducted in Paris, the offer must have seemed like a dispatch from a different planet.

Although Haydn’s music was popular, Haydn himself was in a position of relative isolation. From 1760 to 1790 he lived at Eszterháza, a 126-room Rococo palace built by the Hungarian Esterházy family. Although Haydn was well paid and led a comfortable existence, Eszterháza was nevertheless a remote country estate, built on a swamp that was never intended to support a building, with little access to the musical society of the cities. Visits to Vienna threw into sharp relief what he was missing. After one such visit, he wrote to his host in the city upon his return to Eszterháza: “Well, here I sit in my wilderness; forsaken, like some poor orphan, almost without human society, melancholy, dwelling on the memory of past glorious days…I do not know whether I am kapellmeister or kapellservant…Here in Eszterháza no-one asks me, ‘Would you like chocolate with or without milk? Will you take coffee with or without cream? What can I offer you, my good Haydn? Will you have vanilla ice or strawberry?’”

Perhaps it is a tad melodramatic to interpret a paucity of choice in desserts as evidence of Haydn’s status as a “poor, forsaken orphan.” But it is true that his orchestra was small, his movements and social circle limited, and his life wholly under the control of the Esterházys.

The musical life of Paris could not have been farther away from Haydn’s sparse, isolated life. Haydn’s invitation was to write for an orchestra called Le__s Concert__s de la loge Olympique, a group operated by a Parisian Masonic Lodge. Freemasonry was all the rage in the mid-1780s; Mozart had joined, and Haydn briefly did as well, though he seems to have lost interest fairly quickly.

The Loge Olympique de la Parfaite Estime had what was quite possibly the largest and most opulent orchestra in the world. It contained an astonishing sixty-five musicians (Haydn had twenty-five at the most at home), who performed in elaborate blue ruffled coats while wearing swords. Their maestro, Bologne, was the son of a French plantation owner in Guadeloupe and an African woman forced to serve as maid to his father’s wife. Despite the racial discrimination he faced socially and that prevented him from inheriting his father’s titles, Bologne was not just the conductor of the city’s most prestigious orchestra, a prolific composer and a virtuoso violinist; he was also a champion fencer of such fame that the Parisian public was initially astonished, upon his first appearance in an orchestra, to learn he could also play the violin. His orchestra contained many members who were successful composers in their own right, such as the flutist François Devienne and violinist Giuseppe Cambini, and a mix of amateur and professional musicians– this being long before the term “amateur” acquired the sheen of insult that it possesses today, so the amateur contingent meant the orchestra contained prominent citizens of every sort. In short, the Loge Olympique orchestra was exciting and cosmopolitan in precisely the way that Eszterháza was not.

Their sponsor, Masonic Grandmaster Count D’Ogny, founded the orchestra at the age of twenty-six, and was smart enough to recognize he should let the more experienced Bologne handle the details; it was thus the conductor who wrote to Haydn and offered him 25 louis d’or for each of the six symphonies, plus five more each for the publication rights, an extremely generous price. Although Haydn simply sent the symphonies over from Eszterháza and never witnessed his rapturous reception in Paris for himself, they bear out Haydn’s more philosophical assessment of is isolation, that at Eszterháza he was “forced to become original.” The “Bear” is the last written of the set, though numbered as the first; its nickname refers not to a specific bear but to the tradition of dancing bears accompanied by bagpipes as street entertainment, a sonority imitated in the final movement.