Haydn: Symphony No. 7 in C Major, “Le Midi”

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809): Symphony No. 7 in C Major, “Le Midi”


We almost intuitively think of the symphony as a reliable indicator of a composer’s gravitas. Can a composer of classical music be considered “great” without writing one? They are formal statements, structurally complex, typically spanning four movements that must sustain themselves according to compositional rules while also relating to each other. That’s why Mozart’s early symphonies, composed when his age was still in single digits, were taken as a sign of his musical precocity. On the other hand, Haydn – serious, disciplined, and productive – did not start writing symphonies until he was in his mid-twenties. We consider his roster of 104 symphonies to be among the high watermarks of the form, but that impressive number reflects his longevity as well as his talent; he continued writing symphonies into his eighties. Mozart, who died at age 35, wrote 41 symphonies. How many might he have composed had he lived longer? On the other hand, Haydn’s earliest symphonies, including his No. 7, “Le Midi,” are fully mature works.

Joseph Haydn's first important appointment as a professional musician was to the court of Count Morzin, an aristocrat of the Austrian Empire whose palace was in the village of Dolni Lukavice, near the city we now know as Pilsen (Plzeň) in the modern Czech Republic. The year was either 1757 or 1759 — Haydn would have been either 25 or 27 years of age. George August Griesinger, Haydn's first major biographer, reported the following based on an interview with Papa Haydn himself:

In the year 1759 Haydn was appointed in Vienna to be music director to Count Morzin with a salary of two hundred gulden, free room, and board at the staff table. Here he enjoyed at last the good fortune of a carefree existence; it suited him thoroughly. The winter was spent in Vienna and the summer in Bohemia, in the vicinity of Pilsen.

Not only the exact year, but even the particular individual who hired Haydn is contested; was it Ferdinand Maximilian Morzin or his son and heir, Karl Joseph? On such questions hang questions of objectivity in music journalism. The late H.C. Robbins Landon, an important authority on Haydn and Mozart, believed that the young Haydn's patron was in fact the senior Count Morzin, a more powerful figure in Austrian politics. On the other hand, James Webster, writing almost 15 years later in the generally authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, identifies Haydn's benefactor as Ferdinand Maximilian's son, Karl.

As it happens, H.C. Robbins Landon was a generous colleague and friend to the author of the article you're reading now — which may be one reason why I am inclined to believe him regarding the facts of Haydn's biography. But another reason is how well it supports our understanding of Haydn's unusual life as a composer. To put a Trekkie spin on it, Haydn lived long and prospered, applying his great musical gifts with discipline, judgment and political sure-footedness. His agreeable character and musical accomplishments had already had already become known within and outside his professional world. All of these virtues were instrumental in building his reputation as a patriarch of the classical age, and his appointment by the senior Count Morzin while still in his twenties to a position in which he could call himself Kapellmeister would have been an important early stage in his professional life. The Kapellmeister's lifestyle during the Classical era reflects the same pattern that prevails today, with the new "season" of music beginning each fall. It has often been described as migratory, and kept Haydn where his employer wanted him — on the Count's hereditary estate in the country during the summers, and in the thick of the Austrian capital's musical and social scene in the winters.

The one blot on Haydn's seemingly charmed development as a composer was his marriage to Anna Maria Keller in 1760, just a year or two after his appointment by Count Morzin. Haydn's contract with the count expressly barred him from marriage, but he apparently was able to keep his employer unaware of his alliance with Anna — a marriage that, despite its general unhappiness, endured 40 years. At any rate, this potential obstacle proved moot, since Haydn’s patron found himself in a budget crunch within a year after the marriage, and was forced to eliminate Haydn’s position.

A setback? Nothing of the kind: Count Morzin helped Haydn gain an appointment as Vicekapellmeister in the service of the very prestigious Prince Anton Esterházy at Eisenstadt, where he worked as composer, conductor and administrator, advancing his career significantly. With the incumbent Kapellmeister in ill health, Haydn assumed that position in all but name — at a salary much higher than the amount he originally received from Count Morzin.

Haydn's canon of 104 symphonies begins with his appointment by Count Morzin. It is believed that 11 of his early symphonies were written for the Count, though they are not numbered consecutively and there is some debate as to exactly which of these works were written for him. (The numbers range up into the 30s, with significant gaps in the chronology.) But historians place the Symphony No. 7 in the period when Haydn was composing for the house of Morzin.

What to Listen For

In later symphonies we hear Haydn creating a sound that is familiar to us as "symphonic scale," for an ensemble of about 60 players. (The post-Romantic symphony orchestra generally numbers at least 70, sometimes many more). But the symphonies written for Count Morzin were scaled for a smaller orchestra and had a more intimate sound; based on scores for another of Haydn's composers, Robbins Landon estimated that Count Morzin's orchestra comprised six to eight violins; a basso section of one cello, one bassoon and one double-bass; and a "wind-band" sextet of oboes, bassoons and horns. The resulting sound is more akin to a chamber ensemble than to that of a larger ensemble that can blast out Brucknerian thunder. What we hear is not the dramatic intensity of a Romantic symphony, but the beauty and symmetry of the Classical era at a scale that brings us close to the heart of the music, as in a chamber work. The textures are transparent, and the instruments are somewhat exposed.

The symphony is classed as a sonata da chiesa (a "church sonata") not because of any sacred themes associated with it, but because of its formal structure and the alternating pacing of its four movements, which are marked adagio ma non troppo (slow, but not too slow), allegro (fast), menuet and trio, and presto (fast). The slow movements are formidably challenging for horn players; only in his 51st symphony do we hear such difficult playing for the horns.

What to Listen For

Most likely composed in 1761, Haydn's Symphony No. 7 is nicknamed "Le Midi," denoting noon. Haydn's many symphonies have acquired many such names over the years, and while this one does not seem inappropriate, neither does it seem specifically descriptive of the symphony's sound: emphatic and stately, opening with a ceremonial march that leaves us feeling well-oriented as on a clear day, but with nothing particularly suggestive of a blazing sun overhead. The noontime designation isn't entirely without supporting evidence — mainly the key signature of C major, which Haydn would often use to denote the bright, clarifying light of God during the course of his long career in works such as his oratorio The Creation. But to Haydn enthusiasts it does suggest a natural pairing with his Symphony No. 6, "Le Matin," denoting morning — a work that opens with a painterly evocation of sunrise. So it seemed natural to link the seventh to noon and the somewhat darker eighth to evening as "Le Soir."

All three of these early symphonies were composed in the same year and have a crisp, well-organized structure similar to the Baroque era's concerto grosso style, which featured the contrasting movements and interplay between foregrounded and backgrounded instruments that gave rise to the Classical symphonic form. In much of the symphony we enjoy responsive playing between contrasting lines as the solo lines, often dispatched with high, ornate passagework, provoke larger response in the larger ensemble — a responsive style between groups denoted as "ripieno" and "concertante" in Baroque style. But in the finale of the lively fourth movement, marked allegro, we are treated to exciting instrumental displays in every section of the orchetsra.

©Michael Clive