Franz Joseph Haydn was born at Rohrau, Lower Austria, on March 31, 1732, and died in Vienna on May 31, 1809. His Symphony No. 100, his so-called Military Symphony, was composed in 1793-94, probably partly in Vienna and partly in London. Haydn himself led the first performance of his Symphony No. 100 on March 31, 1794, at the Hanover-Square Concert Rooms in London, and the work was repeated a week later.
The score of Symphony No. 100 calls for 2 each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses), plus triangle, cymbals, and bass drum. The symphony is about 25 minutes long.
By the time Haydn produced his first symphonies starting in the late 1850s, the symphony was already in the process of becoming the most important large-scale instrumental genre. One catalogue counts the number composed in the 18th century as over 13,000. The symphony was considered a public form, but in practice the institution of the public concert only just began to take off during Haydn’s lifetime. In German-speaking lands the main venues were still palace music rooms and the like. One of the long, variegated private concerts of the day might begin and end with a symphony played by an orchestra of fifteen to twenty, while in between came a row of concertos, arias, chamber pieces, and so on.
It would be Haydn, helped along by his young colleague Mozart, who finished the process of elevating the symphony to its eventual status as the most important orchestral genre. When Haydn’s pupil Beethoven took up the symphony he really only certified, once and for all, its place at the summit of instrumental music, where Haydn had left it in his London symphonies, nos. 93-104. Those numbers are the essence of Haydn’s importance to the symphony. His output was massive, many-colored, and broadly influential. Paradoxically, his hometown of Vienna was never all that fond of symphonies, and the city lagged far behind London and Paris in public concerts. To find serious and profitable acclaim for his symphonies, Haydn had to go to London.
When Haydn arrived at his 100th symphony he was an internationally famous composer and about to become more so. He had spent nearly thirty years leading the musical forces of the illustrious Hungarian Esterházy family, who are now remembered in history mainly as Haydn’s employers. In the flood of work he produced in those decades as a palace servant, the ones he took most seriously were his dozen operas written for the Esterházys’ private theater. It was the advent of Mozart that made Haydn realize he was not the opera composer he had thought he was. Instead of treating the younger man as a rival, Haydn embraced Mozart as a friend and colleague, somebody to learn from.
With the lightening of his workload at the Esterházy court following the death in 1790 of his longtime employer Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, for the first time in decades Haydn was free to go where he wished. He easily succumbed to an invitation by Johann Peter Salomon to sail to England and to write symphonies and other works for the lively public performance scene in London. The British took symphonies more seriously than the Viennese, sat and listened to them raptly. In his two visits to London, Haydn was ecstatically received by audiences, lionized in artistic circles, and given fees he had hardly dreamed of. But he was not interested in resting on his laurels. Instead he worked as hard as he ever had, producing a row of symphonies with which he intended to make a sensation. Since no composer ever knew better than Haydn how to get an audience in his hands, he succeeded wildly.
A prime example of how he made his sensation is the work that, of the eventual twelve London symphonies, was the most popular from the beginning and remains so—No. 100 in G major, the Military, written in 1793-94. The idea was a natural. Haydn knew a military-themed piece was likely to succeed in a time when Britain and France were at war.
This symphony that found its success with massive sound and fury starts with a gentle, almost sighing introduction; it builds gradually to a massive fortissimo chord with pounding timpani, foreshadowing much drumming to come. The Allegro that follows begins strikingly with a jaunty tune in the high winds, answered by strings. Here Haydn is writing for the larger orchestra he had at his disposal in London, with full winds and brass (though he reserves the clarinets for the second movement only). The themes are bright, the scoring colorful. The only note of tension is a development that begins with a long silence, followed by a theme in a dark coloration. For a while there is a general air of uncertainty.
In the second movement that uncertainty blossoms. It features one of Haydn’s trademark little tunes with big consequences. It is, in fact, a bit of a military march. Before long the military side turns scary; a percussion battery enters with a fortissimo crash. The instruments are bass drum, triangle, and cymbals, what listeners of the time associated with “Turkish” military music—and at that point the melody takes on a darker coloration. The effect feels like fun and games to modern listeners, but to the time it seemed like the voice of battle itself—especially the coda, which begins with a military bugle call, a roll in the timpani, and another explosion of percussion. As one reviewer described it, “the clash of arms, the groans of the wounded, and what may well be called the hellish roar of war increase to a climax of hellish sublimity”—noting also that, though other composers might conceive such a thing, “[Haydn] alone has effected these wonders.” The movement brought the house down, insured the success of the symphony, and gave the piece its familiar name of Military.
To calm us down, Haydn provides a gracious and rather old-fashioned minuet, like the fancy-dress ball after the battle. The finale is a racing Presto in 6/8, with one of his lilting themes that stick readily in the ear. The movement hardly departs from that theme, playing wry and quirky games with it. Toward the end the percussion battery returns, not as evocation of a battle but to bring the piece to a close in a tone of victory and high spirits.
For Haydn who was born in the Baroque era, opera, oratorio, and big sacred pieces were still the most significant genres. After the London group, he never wrote another symphony, but rather concentrated on Masses and the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, which he considered the crown of his work. But in size and seriousness his last symphonies, along with Mozart’s last ones (nos. 39-41), had placed the symphony at the top of instrumental genres. It was in that position that Beethoven took up the genre and made it the crown of all music.
Jan Swafford is an award-winning composer and author whose books include biographies of Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and Charles Ives. He is an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center, where he studied composition.