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philosopher symphony

In essence, The Imaginative Conservative is a community of philosophers, dedicated to examining and understanding God’s creation. What better anthem for this journal than Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn’s remarkable Symphony No. 22 in E flat major, known as the “Philosopher” Symphony? Though the nickname was probably not Haydn’s, it was given to the work during the composer’s lifetime and is highly appropriate given the pensive nature of the symphony’s remarkable first movement.

That movement, set at an adagio and with all repeats observed lasting, with repeats, for some ten minutes, features a chorale for two horns and two cor anglais (an instrument similar to the oboe but pitched lower) set against a gentle tick-tocking of strings. The spirit is one of gentle contemplation and repose, and the total effect of the dialogue of the two duos of wind instruments is to suggest a medieval disputation, with the call-and-response of the master and student set against the backdrop of the progress of time. A friend of Haydn, however, suggested that, as the composer used his symphonies to promote “moral character,” and that in the “Philosopher,” the horn represented the unheeded calls of God to the unrepentant sinner to reform.[1]

By the time Haydn wrote the “Philosopher” in 1764, the classical symphony—a genre that he himself helped to create—contained four movements: an allegro or presto, followed by an andante or adagio, a minuet, and another allegro or presto as the finale. In reversing the order of the first two movements in the “Philosopher,” and in scoring the work for only horns, cor anglais, and strings, Haydn created a symphony without precedent. Indeed, one authority claims that it is “the only symphony in the entire history of the genre to use this scoring.”[2] Yet at the same time, that remarkable, slow first movement is in the established form of a church sonata (sonata da chiesa), which would have been entirely familiar to Haydn’s audiences. Here is the mark of true artistic genius: innovation not for its own sake in a way meant to overturn tradition, but innovation within established forms in order to build organically upon tradition.

So disconcerting to eighteenth-century audiences was the character, length, and placement of the first movement that an unknown publisher refashioned it, beheading the “Philosopher” Symphony of its first section and inserting a new adagio (not written by Haydn) in place of the minuet. The result was a work that alternated fast-slow-fast movements—in essence simplifying the symphony and returning it to an earlier, tripartite incarnation of the genre.

One conductor was moved to deem the “Philosopher” one of the five symphonies that “changed the world.”[3] Certainly it, and the eighty-plus ensuing symphonies that Haydn composed, did much to elevate the symphony so as to become the primary mode of creative expression for Beethoven and the Romantic composers who followed—and who were influenced—by the long-lived “Papa” Haydn. Regardless of whether the “Philosopher” Symphony merits the exalted claim of changing the world, it is undeniably a great work, which brilliantly depicts in musical terms the prudential, thoughtful life of careful examination that all of us—especially Imaginative Conservatives—should strive to lead.

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Notes:

[1] Robert Greenberg, Great Masters: Haydn—His Life and Music.

[2] David Wyn Jones, Oxford Composer Companions: Haydn.

[3] “The five symphonies that changed music,” Mark Elder, The Guardian (November 3, 2011).

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1 reply to this post
  1. Thank you for this Mr. Klugewicz. I’ve only recently begun to expand the Haydn portion of my library and now have this on my soon to purchase list. Love the Adagio.

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