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The ‘Clock’ Symphony

Symphony No. 101 in D major (“The Clock”)


Haydn’s decision to travel to London was in response to an invitation from Johann Peter Salomon, who was a kind of 18th century agent, and who offered Haydn a lot of money to give concerts of his music in a city where he was already well known. His first trip took place in 1791 and 1792 and he returned in 1794-1795, during which time his 101st symphony was given its first performance on March 3rd 1794.

The London concerts featured larger orchestras than Haydn was used to in Vienna or at Esterházy, and the première of the 101st Symphony, the writing of which was begun in Vienna shortly before Haydn departed for London, was given by an orchestra of 60 players, led by Salomon. Like most of Haydn’s London performances, the piece was given rave reviews. The symphony got its nickname from the ‘ticking’ rhythm of the second movement, which was based on one of a number of short ‘clock-like’ pieces that Haydn wrote for Prince Esterházy the previous year to accompany a gift of a clock. It is said that both the first and second movements had to be given as encores at the first performance.

This symphony and the other five written at roughly the same time (the last six of Haydn’s 104 symphonies) are considered to be examples of Haydn at the peak of his powers as a composer of instrumental music. They are written for a larger orchestra than most of his previous symphonies, including two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani, and are notable for their sublime wit, excellent instrumental writing and forward-looking style.

The Classical Orchestra

The Baroque orchestra was largely string instruments, usually with a harpsichord and sometimes a wind instrument or two depending on the nature of the music. In the early Classical period the harpsichord became less and less used and woodwind instruments more and more common, with the invention of the clarinet completing the line-up of two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoons found in the “Clock” Symphony. Additionally, a pair of horns augmented the range of textures available to Classical composers, and those who wanted a particularly big sound also included two trumpets and two timpani (usually tuned to the tonic and dominant notes), which is the case in this piece.

In much Classical music the woodwind and horns tended to play a harmonic and textural role, though in later works such as this one there was a notable increase in melodic and soloistic work for woodwind especially. Trumpets and timpani worked together at important structural moments to underpin and emphasise the harmony, and this line-up continued into the early orchestral work of Beethoven and Schubert.

Horns and trumpets at Haydn’s time were not usually capable of playing all the notes of the chromatic scale, since the concept of valved brass instruments did not take hold until the nineteenth century. However, these instruments could be modified with detachable lengths of tubing called crooks which allowed them to play the notes of the harmonic series in a key of the player’s choice. The horns in the second movement of the “Clock” Symphony are crooked to sound in G, so that a written C on the score sounds as a G.

Clarinets were and still are transposing instruments and the ones in this piece are in A, meaning that a written C sounds a minor third lower. In the second movement the timpani player re-tunes one of the drums from A to G, giving him G and D – the tonic and dominant of G major, the key of the second movement.


A multi-movement work

By the time of this symphony, the genre had settled into a four-movement form. The first movement was usually an allegro and was in sonata form (see the core resource on structure for an explanation of different musical forms). The second movement was slow and contrasted with the first, and could be in a number of forms – sometimes sonata form, sometimes ternary, and quite often a theme and variations. The third movement was a dance-like movement usually in the form of a minuet and trio, and the final movement was allegro again, usually in rondo or sonata form.

Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony follows this four-movement pattern, with a few modifications. The first movement is indeed fast, marked presto, and is in sonata form, but it begins with a slow introduction, marked adagio. The third movement is a minuet and trio but is not very dance-like, featuring dramatic contrasts which were typical of Haydn’s style. The finale is a hybrid of sonata form and rondo form, marked vivace.

While it is only necessary to look at the second movement for AQA’s GCSE Music, it would be a really good idea to listen to these other movements to get a sense of context. Let’s now concentrate, however, on the movement in question.

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