Program Notes: Haydn Sinfonia concertante

By: René Spencer Saller 

A precursor of the modern symphony, the sinfonia developed out of early 18th-century Italian opera conventions. A sinfonia, like a concerto, conventionally has three related movements: fast, slow, fast. But perhaps a more useful definition of the sinfonia concertante is simply this: a sinfonia concertante is a concerto that contains more than one solo part. No single instrument is the star.

In 1792, when Haydn composed his one and only sinfonia concertante, he was 60 years old, and approaching the end of a very long and productive career. By 1792 he had composed more than 90 symphonies and 50 string quartets; he had nothing left to prove. The Austrian composer was the toast of London, where he had been in residence for the past year. But his business associate, the publicity-hungry impresario Johann Peter Salomon, drummed up a fake rivalry between Haydn and his former pupil Ignaz Pleyel, whose recent sinfonia concertante had delighted London audiences. Salomon persuaded Haydn to compose a sinfonia concertante of his own.

Built around a solo quartet of oboe, bassoon, violin and cello, Haydn's Sinfonia concertante is perfectly pitched between playful and profound. The opening Allegro provides a great deal of sparkling banter among the soloists as they develop melodic ideas with the orchestra.  All four solo instruments interact conversationally, cooperatively. Virtuosic passages abound, but no one dominates or disrupts. The central Andante is a shot of pure and potent chamber music. In the high-spirited finale, the four soloists toss increasingly tricky scales and figures to the orchestra, which gamely attempts to keep up. Although at times the movement feels argumentative, it ends, with a radiant tutti, on a note of accord.

Learn more about the DSO musicians featured on this program here

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