Surprise Symphony #94

Franz Joseph Hayden Classical composer (1732-1809)

“That will make the ladies scream.”

Joseph Haydn, speaking of the ‘surprise’ in the ‘Surprise’ Symphony No.94; quoted in A Gyrowetz, Memoirs, 1848

To hear Josef Haydn, Symphony no. 94 Surprise right-click on the link above.

Haydn while in London composed this symphony in 1791. The first performance took place in  London with Haydn leading the orchestra.

Haydn’s  personality produced a somewhat droll musical humor, as in the “surprise” in the slow movement of his Symphony #94.

Franz Joseph Haydn  was a leading composer of the classical period.  Haydn was affectionately referred to as “Papa” Haydn, reflecting his influence on younger composers as well as his central role in the development of two of the most important genres of the time, the symphony and the string quartet.  Therefore Haydn was also known as the “Father of the symphony” and “Father of the string quartet”. Haydn like his music, was warm and heartfelt, extremely intelligent, and very well controlled.

The name “Franz” was not used in the composer’s lifetime; scholars, along with an increasing number of music publishers and recording companies, now use the more accurate form of his name,  “Joseph Haydn”.

A life-long resident of Austria, Haydn spent most of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Eszterházy family on their remote estate. Being isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, “forced to become original”.

Joseph Haydn had two brother, the first being Michael Haydn, himself a highly regarded composer, and his second brother, Johann Evangelist Haydn,was  a tenor singer.  Haydn was born in 1732 in Rohrau, Austriato to Matthias Haydn and Maria Koller. Neither parent could read music.

Haydn’s style had a  major influence on the development of European music we can  see  tension between the older  style of the Baroque and the more popular style of the late eighteenth century. Haydn was a compulsive worker, his work was known and appreciated far beyond his native Austria. His incredible musical creations included  one hundred-four symphonies,  fifty concertos, and dozens of string quartets and  masses.

Tracing Haydn’s work over the six decades in which it was produced, one sees a gradual but steady increase in complexity and musical sophistication. These changes in his  music developed as Haydn learned from his own experience and that of his colleagues. Over this 60 years of labor we can see how his music has adapted to the rise of the middle class. More complex accessible music was wanted and he definitely provided it.
An important change in Haydn’s contract permitted him to publish his compositions ” without prior authorization from his employer.” This  encouraged Haydn to rekindle his career as a composer of “pure” music. The change made itself felt most dramatically in 1781, when Haydn published the six string quartet of Opus 33. Announcing (in a letter to potential purchasers) that they were written in “a new and completely special way”.
Charles Rosen has argued that “this assertion on Haydn’s part was not just sales talk, but meant quite seriously; and he points out a number of important advances in Haydn’s compositional technique that appear in these quartets,” advances – that mark the advent of the Classical style in full bloom. These include a fluid form of phrasing, in which each motif emerges from the previous one without interruption, the practice of letting accompanying material evolve into melodic material, in which each instrumental part maintains its own integrity. These traits continue in the many quartets that Haydn wrote after Opus 33.
These changes make the music have a much broader appeal to the general population.
Rosen calls his “popular style”, a way of composition that, with unprecedented success, created music having great popular appeal but retaining a learned and rigorous musical structure. An important element of the popular style was the frequent use of folk or folk-like material. Haydn took care to use this material in appropriate locations, such as the endings of sonata expositions or the opening themes of finales.  Haydn’s popular style can be heard in virtually all of his later work, including the twelve London symphonies, the late quartets and piano trios, and the two late oratorios.

Haydn’s return to Vienna around 1795 seemed to mark the last turning point in Haydn’s career. Although his musical style appeared to  evolve little, his intentions as a composer changed. While he had been a servant, and later a busy entrepreneur, Haydn wrote his works quickly and in profusion, with frequent deadlines. As a rich man, Haydn now felt he had the privilege of taking his time and writing for posterity. This is reflected in the subject matter of The Creation and The Seasons, which address  weighty topics like the meaning of life and the purpose of humankind. change in Haydn’s approach was important in the history of music.

I chose this piece of music as I have always been an admirer of the “Surprise symphony #94”. I was much mistaken in thinking it was a composition of Beethoven’s. I was delighted to find out the composer was not only a genius, he was well thought of and considered a “father” figure. I did not actually “scream” from surprise while listening, but it does catch you by surprise and makes you jump! I love it!



  1. 1

    This is great, you did an excellent job with your post. You gave all the information that a person would wanted to know about the composer. Your attention to the detail of his life was amazing. You did only mention the middle class briefly, I hope that that does not hurt your grade. The only thing I would like to know is: why did he write it? Like I said in my other comment blog, these periods that we are studying are filled with a lot of untold stories about why a painter, composer or writer created the work that they did. Finding out the story behind the work is also just as importune as the background of the person. I did not scream, but I did just because it did surprise me, doing this in the dark at 5am did not help either. Great music selection and great blog.

  2. 2
    Lisa Kljaich Says:

    I thought I would add a bit to the excellent information that you included. The Andante movement of the Surprise Symphony is based on folk material. Do you hear echoes of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the first melody?

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