Haydn | Die Jahreszeiten

Setting Industry to Music

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732‒1809), one of the most popular composers of his time, is venerated along with Mozart and Beethoven as a master of the Viennese Classical era. He is known as the father of both the symphony and the string quartet for his ground-breaking contributions to those forms. Over his lifetime he wrote more than 100 symphonies, more than 65 string quartets, and numerous operas, masses, and other choral works.

This master composer was born in Austria to a working-class family, the second of 12 children. His father was a wheelwright with no particular interest in music; his mother hoped that Joseph would eventually take holy orders. Haydn’s musical talent became evident at the age of five, however, when a relative, impressed by the boy’s singing, convinced his parents that he needed musical training. When Joseph was seven, he was sent to sing in the choir at the Stephansdom in Vienna, where he received instruction in the violin, the harpsichord, and vocal technique. He was dismissed from the choir in about 1749 when his voice broke, after which, in his own words, “for eight whole years I was forced to eke out a wretched existence by teaching young people.” (1)

In these early years, Haydn struggled to make ends meet and often had to rely on the generosity of friends for places to live. He began to compose, and his early compositions were sufficiently accomplished to bring him to the notice of Count Morzin in Vienna, who hired him as his orchestra director in 1758. Haydn wrote his first symphonies while in Morzin’s employ. In 1761 he accepted the post of assistant kapellmeister for the powerful and wealthy Esterházy family. In 1766, he became their chief kapellmeister, and for the next 25 years he composed under the family’s patronage and directed its in-house orchestra at the family estate in Eisenstadt.

In 1790, due to financial constraints, the Esterházy orchestra was disbanded. Haydn then made several trips to London, where his music was already fantastically popular. There, between 1791–1792 and 1794–1795, he composed some of his greatest works, the “London Symphonies.” In 1795 he returned to Vienna and settled there under the patronage of the new Esterházy prince, Nikolaus II.

Haydn was a kind, pious, and hard-working man, possessed of a sharp business sense that allowed him to amass a comfortable fortune by the end of his life. He was reportedly very fond of women; his childless marriage was not a happy one, and he had a number of mistresses throughout his life. As his wealth and fame grew, he gave numerous concerts for charitable causes, including for the maintenance of families of musicians who were less fortunate than he. Haydn was always very devoted to his own large extended family, giving generously of his time and money to his many nieces and nephews.

Young musicians today may know of Haydn from the child’s song, “Papa Haydn’s dead and gone/But his mem’ry lingers on/When his mood was one of bliss/He wrote jolly tunes like this,” which is sung to the opening melody of the second movement of the Symphony No. 94 in G major, the “Surprise Symphony.” The musicians whom Haydn directed while in the employ of the Esterhazy family first gave him the title of “Papa” on account of his benevolence and generosity toward them. Many aspiring young composers in Vienna, including his good friend Mozart, also called Haydn by that affectionate name.

Haydn claimed he never wrote in haste, but rather composed diligently and deliberately. He enjoyed jokes of all kinds. His music often demonstrates an inventive, sometimes whimsical, sense of humor. He was a master of musical tropes, figures, and contrasts, and “a brilliant and enthusiastic word painter.” (2) Word painting, or tone painting, is the use of musical techniques to represent the literal meaning of a text.

Haydn composed his two famous oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten), near the end of his musical career in Vienna. He had heard performances of Handel’s Messiah in London and was so moved by the piece that he decided to write something similar. With financial support for his project from his librettist and mentor Gottfried van Swieten, his first oratorio, The Creation, premiered in Vienna in 1799 to universal praise. It is said that Beethoven was in attendance and that after hearing the piece, the young composer was so overcome by its power that he knelt in homage to Haydn.

Following the phenomenal success of The Creation, van Swieten urged Haydn to compose another oratorio, to be based on “The Seasons” by Scottish poet James Thomson, which van Swieten had translated loosely into German. Haydn was 69 years old when he completed The Seasons and complained that the project was an exhausting one. Some of the difficulty he had with its composition was perhaps due to artistic disagreements with van Swieten, who apparently wanted Haydn to include more specific and whimsical word painting than Haydn felt comfortable with, including the croaking of frogs, which Haydn scorned as “Frenchified trash.” (3) When Haydn first read the portion of the libretto praising “Fleiss,” or industry, he is said to have remarked that he “had been an industrious man all his life, but that it had never occurred to him to set industry to music.” (4)

Despite this grumbling, Haydn’s agile, inventive spirit is evident in each of the four parts of The Seasons, which portray not only the cycles of nature but also the cycles of human life in scenes presented by the trio of soloists — the peasant characters of Simon, Hanne, and Lukas — and a chorus of country folk.The piece abounds in evocative and witty word painting.

The Seasons was first performed on April 24, 1801, at the palace of Prince Schwarzenberg. On May 29, Haydn conducted the first public performance. The oratorio was an immediate popular success. A correspondent of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung described the public reaction thus: “Silent reverence, amazement, and loud enthusiasm alternated, for the powerful appearance of colossal visions, the immeasurable abundance of splendid ideas surprised and overwhelmed the boldest expectations.” (5)

After completing The Seasons, Haydn’s health declined. Though he lived until 1809, he stopped composing altogether in 1803, complaining that he no longer had the strength to give voice to all the music that was still inside him. He nevertheless continued to receive awards and prizes from all corners of Europe, which cheered him greatly. In 1808, he was invited to a tribute performance of The Creation, where he was carried into the hall to great applause and tears of devotion from the audience. Salieri conducted the performance, and Beethoven was in attendance. Sadly, Haydn was forced to leave halfway through the piece. This was his last public appearance.

Haydn died in 1809, in the midst of the French assault on Vienna. His biographer reports that Napoleon ordered a guard to protect Haydn’s house because he considered the composer such a treasure.

The Seasons

Der Frűling” (Spring)

Emphasizing the cyclical nature of the seasons, Haydn opens the oratorio with the transition from winter to spring. The opening overture presents the demise of winter through its vigorous evocation in the strings of the torrents of melting snow and winter’s dying blasts. Hanne’s gentle recitative introduces the chorus of country people’s hymn-like prayer invoking spring. The orchestra alternates between gentle, almost tentatively lyric passages and more triumphant, energetic ones; the hoped-for spring appears only gradually. But spring has truly arrived by the time Simon sings his dancelike song (No. 4) depicting a farmer cheerfully planting his fields. Listen to the orchestra immediately after Simon’s first phrase and you’ll hear the famous melody from the “Surprise Symphony” played by the piccolo. Perhaps the farmer is whistling that very tune as he plows his fields!

This entire section celebrates the promise of youth, with lilting passages that call attention to the beauty of newly budding flowers, the playful energy of frisking lambs, and the busy activities of the bees. It closes with a stirring hymn of praise to God, punctuated by the soloists’ prayerful trio, concluding in a fugue of unmitigated joy.

Der Sommer” (Summer)

This section begins with an adagio passage describing the first light of dawn gently dispelling the gloom of night. The birdlike song of the oboe — “the day’s herald” — awakens the peasant to his toil. In section No. 10, we hear the shepherd’s horn as the sun rises and he sets out, guiding his flock from one verdant hill to another. No. 11 evokes the sunrise: The trio’s harmonies ascend in brightness with the sun, culminating in the peasants’ joyful, blazing chorus. Subsequent movements describe both the joyous energy of the sun and its enervating heat. In No. 14, a lilting, pastoral flute accompanies Hanne as she welcomes the shade of the groves. Oboes suggest light zephyrs that lift and die away. Once in the reviving coolness of the shady grove, the oboe continues (No. 15), and like the newly refreshed hearts of the villagers, grows in energy into a soaring melody.

This peace is disturbed by the approach of a summer storm. We can hear the faint rumbling of summer thunder in the timpani, followed by the suspenseful plinks of the first raindrops at the close of No. 16. A deathlike silence reigns until the chorus of peasants suddenly erupts in panic, fleeing the turbulent thunderstorm. The storm grows to a fever pitch, the timpani’s thunder punctuating the frantic sixteenth notes in the strings. As the clouds disperse and the sun shines over the fields once again, both people and animals emerge from their shelters, the quail calling to his mate and the crickets chirping. The chorus hails peaceful evening as the vocal lines descend into restful sleep.

“Der Herbst” (Autumn)

This section starts with the paean to human industry that so annoyed Haydn — appropriately set to an energetic fugue. Also notable is the duet between Hanne and Lukas, which celebrates a love uncomplicated by artifice, through pastoral imagery and alternating ecstatic and tender expressions of devotion. The depiction of hunting in Nos. 24 to 26 is perhaps the most evocative of the entire oratorio. Hunting horns sound as the huntsman’s bird dog runs faster and faster, tracking the scent of the prey. When the dog stops, pointing, so does the music, only to erupt again as the bird suddenly flushes and, with a loud report in the timpani, falls dead to the ground. In the following, galloping chorus, hunters and dogs pursue and kill a stag, with shouts of “Tally Ho!,” accompanied by horns and the gleeful villagers. Finally, in a boisterous drinking song and dance, the country folk celebrate the best part of the harvest: the wine. This movement ends with a “tipsy fugue” in which the singers, who have clearly imbibed too much, are barely able to execute the complicated fugue subject.

“Der Winter” (Winter)

The final section begins slowly in a minor key, as winter imprisons all nature in its cold and gloom. The following movements describe a lost traveler, blundering through the flurries of snow in confusion, who suddenly sees the light of a cottage before him and enters to find warmth and comfort. Inside, the country folk pursue their winter work and entertainments — spinning, gossiping, and storytelling. Especially notable is Hanne’s spinning song (No. 34), lilting above the orchestra’s whirring accompaniment.

Finally, the oratorio grows serious, as Simon warns that our own spring and summer will inevitably also pass into the autumn and winter of our lives. We can hear Haydn’s own end-of-life meditations in Simon’s lamentation over the loss of the hopes and pleasures of this world. But the concluding message of the oratorio is that human beings, while a part of the natural world, can ultimately transcend its cycles of birth and death. The triumphant final chorus assures us that those who do the will of God will enter heaven and live eternally in the peace of the Lord.

— Nina Anne Greeley

(1) James Webster and Georg Feder, The New Grove Haydn, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London, 2002.
2 Ibid.
3 Karl Geiringer, Haydn: A Creative Life in Music, W.W. Norton and Co., 1946.
4 Georg Griesinger, Biographical Notes Concerning Joseph Haydn, translated by Vernon Gotwals,
University of Wisconsin Press, 1963.
5 Karl Geiringer, Haydn: A Creative Life in Music, W.W. Norton and Co., 1946.