Haydn: Symphony No. 96 in D major “Miracle” Hob. I:96

Franz Joseph Haydn had bad luck with leaving jobs. His very first period of musical employment, as a chorister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, ended abruptly with a caning and a shove out the door after the composer cut off a colleague’s pigtail as a joke. His next job, as the music director of an orchestra in the household of a wealthy Count, disappeared into thin air when the Count was forced to face up to being not, in fact, quite wealthy enough for that kind of expenditure. His subsequent position, in the same role for the much richer Esterházy family, lasted for much longer– but they, too, eventually moved to cut costs, drastically reducing the number of musicians employed and the amount the remaining few were paid.

Thus, in 1790, Haydn found himself with a much reduced income but in possession a towering reputation, many friends and admirers, and plenty of free time on his hands. It was the ideal moment for Johann Peter Salomon, a German violinist and conductor living and working in London, to convince Haydn to make a trip to his city. All of London was head over heels for Haydn, so it was a feather in Salomon’s cap to be the one to bring him there, which he did by collecting Haydn from Vienna in person for them to travel together; the trip was the first time Haydn had seen the ocean.

Today, the set of symphonies that Haydn wrote during his time in London are most often referred to as the London symphonies, but also occasionally as the Salomon symphonies. There are twelve London symphonies in all, numbers 93 through 104 of Haydn’s symphonic opus; and, although the 96th symphony is not numbered as such, it was actually the first symphony composed and performed during Haydn’s first London trip.

The story behind the work’s subtitle, The Miracle, provides a glimpse of the kind of enthusiastic reception that the 59-year-old composer received in London. The first symphonic premiere of the trip took place in the Hanover Square Rooms, a musical venue in Hanover Garden established twenty years earlier by Johann Christian Bach and by the late 1700s considered the trendiest venue in London. The room also contained a chandelier of the type commonly found in theatres of the day; theatre chandeliers needed to be hauled up and down from the ceiling using a hand-cranked pulley, and as a result had a reputation for being somewhat fickle. The public’s enthusiasm for the concert was enormous; attendee and music critic Charles Burney wrote in his diary, “Haydn himself presided at the pianoforte: and the sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and pleasure superior to any that had ever, to my knowledge, been caused by instrumental music in England.” The public’s desire to get close to the famous composer was so great, in fact, that they crowded up against the front of the stage– meaning that when the chandelier in the centre of the room crashed to the ground, the audience escaped miraculously unscathed.

The Miracle symphony is in four movements: the slow opening typical of the London symphonies, attached to a first movement in sonata form, and ensuing slow second movement, third movement minuet, and quick finale. The second movement contains a special gift: it ends with an extended orchestral cadenza, beginning with an interplay between the two solo violins. The principal of those parts was played by Salomon; a thank-you from the composer to the friend who brought him on the adventure of a lifetime.