In October last year, I wrote a post about Josef Haydn (1732-1809), alluding, in particular, to his sense of humour. At the heart of this was his eagerness to engage with his audiences: a tough demand in an output, apparently, of some 340 hours of composition.

If he were alive today, I am certain he would be on the side of those who clap between movements, a debate which tends to divide listeners today almost as passionately as…well, take your pick from the current crop. Can’t imagine what might spring to mind.

Even if you are new to classical music, it is likely you will be familiar with the second movement of his Symphony 94 (out of a mere 106), which came to be called The Surprise. Haydn’s intentions were perfectly clear: ‘That will make the ladies scream’, he wrote.

And he was right.

To appreciate its effect, you need to imagine yourself sitting in the audience at its first performance in Hanover Square, London, in 1792. It’s no big surprise to us now, because, unless you’ve not heard it before, we know what’s coming. In 1792, they had no idea.

The Andante starts off innocently enough on the strings with a simple melody, which is repeated more quietly; and then, just as you are getting yourself comfortable, BANG. Everyone comes in on a thumping chord, with what the Germans call a Paukenschlag (great word, meaning kettle drum stroke).

The joke is not repeated, but the genius of the ensuing minutes is sometimes overlooked: Haydn plays with the original tune, turning it around and keeping engaged with his audience. This was more necessary than you might think – competition for their attention was high. One of his pupils, Ignace Pleyel, was in London at the same time and was very popular.

Some of us like surprises, some not. This movement reminds me of a personal experience, which only a handful of people know about, so I’d might as well share it. It is scarcely believable, but every word is true. As surprises go, this is right up there.

About forty years ago, I was to have dinner with a girl, who was going to a drinks party beforehand. She encouraged me to join her there, even though I didn’t know the host, insisting “it’ll be fine.”

Suited and booted, I rang the doorbell, to be greeted by a young girl, no more than five or six years old. “Hello,” I said, “where are Mummy and Daddy?” “Just up the stairs” came the confident reply.

And so up I went. The more I climbed, the more tentative I became. There didn’t seem to be any obvious sounds of a buzzing drinks party. These steps were just like the opening seconds of Haydn’s Andante. I turned to the girl at the bottom of the stairs. “In here?” She nodded.

So in I went. And this was the BANG moment. Mummy and Daddy were there.  But not quite as I expected. Daddy was in the bath, and Mummy was sitting and chatting to him from a wicker chair, also naked as the day she was born, glass of wine in one hand, cigarette in the other. Anyone who has seen the 1974 film, Emmanuelle, will know the image.

I was in the wrong house.

I bolted fairly hastily, although I could have taken my time, for they were in no state to give chase. Just imagine a complete stranger opening your bathroom door at such a moment. It’s fair to say, however, that the surprise was far from one-sided. I was also in some shock.

These are lovely, beautifully crafted minutes, and the conductor, Mariss Jansons, extracts a terrific sound. Haydn is so underrated, his music often used in concerts as an appetiser for something larger in scale. He is so much better than that.

Click the image –





11 thoughts on “SurPRISE!”

  1. Thank you so much for these and previous manuscript notes: These are so interesting. I love Haydn, esp his Creation!

    Sent from my iPad



    1. Or perhaps to play a cluster chord, or something outrageously ‘modern’. Or to delay it by 3.1415 beats exactly. Or to turn to the audience and shout ‘SURPRISE!’
      Anything subversive, in other words – in the spirit of the original.


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