Haydn In Concert: Cue The 'Drum Roll'

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Kettle Drum

The unusual kettle drum solo that opens Haydn's Symphony No. 103 gave the piece its nickname — "Drum Roll." iStock hide caption

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Joseph Haydn died 200 years ago, on May 31, 1809, at 12:40 in the morning. He was 77, an old man for the time, but no one who knew him would have called Haydn aged.

Energy and resilience marked his life, and a creative drive as unfailing as the sun guaranteed his legacy. Here on this page the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and conductor Roberto Abbado demonstrate how even late in life, Haydn was capable — in the ubiquitous sports cliché — of taking innovation to the next level.

He worked and smiled through a thousand indignities. Chief among them: In service to the aristocratic Esterhazy family, Haydn's position on the organizational chart placed him among the kitchen staff. Even as Kapellmeister, Haydn wore a lackey's uniform.

Haydn's princely employer died in 1790, and his successor had no interest in a composer's services. Laid off after thirty years, with a decent severance and a handshake, Haydn confronted a pleasant surprise. His faithful and creative grindstone-tending (92 symphonies at that point, plus dozens of string quartets, masses, operas) had built his reputation in the wider world.

An impresario came knocking on his door, asking, "Have you considered London, sir?"

Before, his symphonies had been, with scattered exceptions, written for home occasions — for the pride of the Esterhazy "brand." Now, they could be for the glory of Haydn; to show this wider world what he could do. And why not? He had worked at his craft, mastered its forms and still had untapped reserves of invention. Nearing sixty, Haydn was ripe, like a tasty new fruit from the frontier. And in a marvel of pre-industrial pickling, he would remain so, without withering, for the final two decades of his life.

Haydn's London Inspiration

Haydn made two sojourns in London, each time introducing six new symphonies. Innovation and freshness marked his music, right to the end.

No. 103, Haydn's penultimate symphony, startled audiences right away with its unique drum roll introduction. How could he have flaunted form like that and been applauded for it? By this time Haydn had the trust and affection of every music lover in London.

Less obvious is how a rather moody theme, after the drum roll, appears and reappears in different dress throughout the symphony, with and without the drum roll to announce it — the rewards of complexity and sophistication in a great piece of popular entertainment.

In Rossini's The Barber of Seville, Figaro sings "Oh, what a great life to be a barber who knows what he's doing." That's Haydn, a supreme master at the top of his game, and enjoying every minute of it. Not only did he have London's trust, he also had a good deal of its money, and at least one autumnal love affair to complete the picture. He was due.

Enjoy this performance of Haydn's Symphony No. 103 by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, led by Roberto Abbado. It was recorded at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, in St. Paul.

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