Joseph Haydn: Symphony No. 99 in E-flat Major

Program notes for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, March 16–17, 2018.
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2018. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 99 is the first in his second set of “London” Symphonies. The distinguished composer had been released from nearly 30 years of service at the Esterházy court, and chose to bring his talents on tour to England. In the decade after Mozart’s untimely death, but before Beethoven’s ascendency, Haydn was Europe’s reigning composer—and he enjoyed a creative flourishing into old age.

Haydn wrote the Symphony No. 99 in 1793, two years after Mozart died. Haydn seems to pick up aspects of his departed friend’s style—in particular, it is his first symphony to include clarinets, instruments which Mozart favored.

Haydn wrote the piece for his second journey to London. After his longtime employer Prince Nikolaus died, Haydn’s work for the Esterházy court dried up. Learning of his newfound availability, the German impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon offered to arrange tours to England. Haydn composed six symphonies, Nos. 93–98, for his first trip between 1791 and 1792 (Mozart died while he was away). Then he wrote Nos. 99–104 for his second trip in 1794. The Symphony No. 99 premiered in London on February 10 of that year.

The first movement opens with a grand Adagio that gives way to a lithe Vivace assai. Just past the five-minute mark comes a curious hesitation in the strings, answered by the woodwinds. Then the movement takes off again on its inquisitive trajectory. The Adagio is set in the distant key of G major, its tranquil melody cut by a faint sense of unease, growing stronger in the second half. After the spirited Menuet, the Finale concludes with brightness and warmth.