Haydn – Symphony No. 94 “Surprise” – brief notes for Lilla, my daughter of 7 years

Posted on August 15, 2013


Dear Lilla,


You recently learned to play a tune on the piano, which is part of this symphony, and you enjoy so much surprising your audience with the little joke built into it. This music was composed by a great composer called Joseph Haydn, who, just like you, very much enjoyed to share funny moments with his friends. Haydn was born more than 280 years ago in Austria, in a small town called Rohrau, close to Hungary.  By this time people had no mobile phones, no computers or CD players, not even electricity in their homes, so if they wanted to listen to music they had to go to a concert or they had to play and sing the music themselves in their home. However, people enjoyed music just as much as they enjoy now and composers everywhere were very busy writing lots and lots of music, always trying to compose something new and better than everyone else.

Haydn learned music as child from a relative and he moved to Vienna at the age of 8. In Vienna he was a choirboy and learned to play the harpsichord (a keyboard instrument similar to the piano) and the violin. Also in Vienna he learned to compose music, and soon he started to work for a rich Hungarian family, moving to Esztrháza, where he lived and worked for many years. He also made long journeys to London, where his music was very much appreciated and later he moved back to Vienna.

His music is often described as bright, cheerful and elegant, only very rarely he wrote sad pieces. As a composer, Haydn usually wanted to please his audience with music based on pleasant, tuneful melodies, which he varied, expanded and embellished throughout the course of the piece. His style has become known as the Classical style. As Haydn was a kind and cheerful person, very much fond of jokes, his music contains frequent humorous moments.

Joseph Haydn – Symphony No 94 “Surprise” (Mit dem Paukenschlag) played by Wiener Philarmoniker, conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Haydn composed the “Surprise” Symphony in London, and they played it here for the first time in 1792. A symphony is a rather long musical piece, where many musicians play together in an orchestra. You already know some of the instruments in the orchestra. You recognise the violin, the viola and the cello, which look similar, but the cello is larger than the other two. You know that larger musical instruments have deeper voice, large flutes make deeper sounds and cellos sound deeper than violins. Besides the stringed instruments and flutes in this symphony you can also hear the sounds of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums.

This symphony is written in the key of G major, which means that the notes and the chords of this scale will appear frequently. It has four parts called movements, and each movement is different from the others.

The first movement starts with a slow introduction and will soon speed up when a happy, playful melody is played for the first time. This melody will be played several times later, and by several different instruments. It is easy to recognise the basic melody, although it doesn’t repeat exactly the same way all the time. Haydn liked to play with the musical notes of the melodies, he frequently rearranged them, added some new notes or played them at different rhythms. You may notice that the music is played sometimes louder, other times more softly and quietly, and this makes us feel a bit different when we hear it.

In the second movement you will recognize the melody of the little song that you played so many times. This is different from the melody heard in the first movement. And there it is, the surprise. After the melody is being played very gently at the beginning, it suddenly wakes up those who were about to doze off with a bang, one single note played very loudly by the whole orchestra. Then it continues soft and gently. However, we surely will not fall asleep before the music is finished, as we are weary that Papa Haydn could wake us up again with another bang. No bangs occur any more though, but we will perhaps listen more attentively to the beautiful music in continuation. We will hear the playful “surprise” tune in its different forms again, gracefully decorated and rearranged. We have discussed about major and minor mode, you know how the major mode is a bit more sharp, “square” compared to the minor mode, which is more soft and “rounded”. You learned to play this melody in minor mode and when we first listened to this piece you recognised the minor mode in the middle of this movement.

The third movement is called Minuet and trio, and it is a dance, or more precisely, a combination of two dances. People always enjoyed dancing when they heard music, so composers usually included some dance music even in more “serious” compositions. The Minuet is a form of dance, which was fashionable in the elegant ballrooms of France a few centuries ago. When we hear the Minuet in a concert hall, of course, we will not stand up to dance (this would only be the privilege of the conductor), but we can do so when we are listening to it at home. It also resembles the feeling of being on a swing in the playground. In this movement you will hear two dances linked together, the first dance being repeated twice, then we hear the second dance, repeated, and the first dance is repeated again, to close the movement. The second dance is called trio, but it is essentially another minuet played by lesser musical instruments.

The fourth movement is a fast one, called Allegro and it is full of energy and of brilliant melodies that link together gracefully. Just like in the first and second movement, Haydn plays a lot with the musical notes of the melodies and with the rhythms. He often makes the music louder and softer to make us feel as if we were riding on the roller coaster. At the end of the movement there is a brief section that is played very firmly, closing up the entire symphony, just like a full stop would close a sentence, or perhaps the entire story.



 Burkholder, J. P., Grout, D. J., Palisca C. V. (eds.) (2005) A history of Western music. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Rosen, C. (1997) The Classical Style. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. 3rd ed. Great Britain: Faber and Faber Limited

 Wikipedia (2013) Joseph Haydn [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haydn [Accessed 14th August  2013]

 Wikipedia (2013) Symphony No. 94 (Haydn) [online] Wikipedia website. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haydn_symphony_94 [Accessed 14th August  2013]

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