We've come to know the concerto as a work showcasing a single soloist with (or sometimes against) an orchestra, but what if a work has not 1... but 4 soloists at the same time? And what if it is also bringing in ideas from the symphony? John Banther and Evan Keely take a look at one of the defining works in the genre, show you what to listen for, and discuss why Haydn might have written it in the first place

Show Notes

Watch this performance to see how the soloists interact with each other and the orchestra


The (very delightful) sinfonia concertante by Ignaz Joseph Pleyel that we mentioned in the episode, and was performed a few months before the work of Haydn's




John Banther: I'm John Banther and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely, and we're exploring a work by Haydn that features four soloists at the same time, his Sinfonia Concertante. After looking at the definition, we show you what to listen for and why Haydn wrote in such a playful manner. Plus, we even have a moment in the music that is completely unnecessary.

I keep forgetting to mention some of the great emails we received simply because I forget things. Like how I should have mentioned that Tim N, fan of the show, recommended the Dvorak episode. So I wanted to actually read something real nice, real quick before we start also related to that Dvorak episode. Teresa Kay wrote, " A few weeks ago I came across your podcast and since then I have been listening to one episode after another." Well, thank you so much Teresa, and we love starting with a compliment. That's always best. She continues, " Coming from the Czech Republic, I especially enjoyed the recent episode about Antony Dvorak's life. As you mentioned, he's still very beloved in our country. This year we celebrate the year of Czech music as the four in 2024 marks many anniversaries in the field of Czech music. Last Saturday, March 2nd, the main celebrations began with an homage to Bedřich Smetana's 200 years birth jubilee."

That is amazing. Teresa. Thank you so much. And sorry if you're cringing at how I maybe mispronounced Smetana's name, but that was very enlightening. I had no idea the number four was so significant, and I'll put a link on the show notes page what she sent to me that shows all of this in depth. It's really something.


Evan Keely: I'm really glad that people enjoyed that Dvorak episode as much as I enjoyed being a part of it.


John Banther: Yes. Okay, so Franz Josef Haydn Sinfonia Concertante, which was an episode recommended by Andrew R. So first off, what is Sinfonia and Concertante? What is this together? We can look at the Harvard Dictionary of Music. And well, Evan, you went to Harvard. So why don't you read this?


Evan Keely: In the 18th and early 19th centuries, a type of concerto for two or more solo instruments and orchestra, though called sinfonias, these works belong with few exceptions to the history of the concerto. The style tends generally towards light and popular rather than the heroic or grand. In the 19th century, the term Sinfonia Concertante fell into disuse, comparable works being designated by such titles as Triple Concerto by Beethoven, the Concertstück by Robert Schumann, or the Double Concerto by Brahms.


John Banther: That's a really nice definition here because we see how it's well related more to the concerto. We see some aspects like it's more light and popular rather than grand. And it's also a title that seems to have been in a time and place. Just in this time and period in the late 1700s because afterwards, as you said, they just choose, well, it's a triple concerto.


Evan Keely: Right. So the form is not necessarily changing, but the title is changing. And as we also see in this passage from the Harvard Dictionary of Music that I just read, this light style is definitely applicable to this work by Haydn that we're going to be looking at today.


John Banther: Yes. And I really hear this Sinfonia Concertante idea as an expansion on something from many decades earlier in the Baroque period, the concerto grosso, like when a composer like Handel would write for a couple of soloists and a small ensemble and they're passing these lines around. And the phenomena of these ideas coming back 50 years later, that has never stopped. You may have noticed the disco clap coming back in style in music. We have maybe Dua Lipa's Levitating to thank for that and that'll fade away soon in a couple of years too, I imagine.


Evan Keely: The more things change, the more they remain the same.


John Banther: And he composed this in February and March of 1792 after being invited to London by a famous concert organizer and violinist at the time, Johann Salomon, if I can even say his name right?


Evan Keely: Yes. Johann Peter Salomon invited Haydn to come to London and he arrived there in 1791 and was there for about a year and a half. Huge success for Haydn and for Salomon, the organizer. This was one of the pieces that Haydn wrote on that first trip to London.


John Banther: Let's jump right into the music. We have multiple soloists and Haydn writes the solos for violin, cello, bassoon, and oboe. And from the beginning, the orchestra and the string soloists, they start together in the introduction and then they subtly emerge from the orchestra like half a minute or so later.

But before that melody Evan, you pointed something out to me that really struck a chord with me. Maybe pun intended, I don't know, but there is a little motif that happens before the main theme comes in, and that's this two eighth notes on a downbeat.


Evan Keely: Right. This is a very Haydn- esque thing, isn't it, John? This is a characteristic style, bum-bum on the downbeat, done, 2, 3, 4, bum- bum, 2, 3, 4, bum-bum. You hear that a lot in this first movement. And it's a very simple little thing. It's a little rhythmic thing, but you hear it a lot and it's just one of those ways that Haydn has of keeping the music exciting.


John Banther: It really adds a rhythmic forward motion to it. And then the oboe starts off with this very simple motif and it gets passed around. And like that motif you were just mentioning, it comes back again and again, and it's almost like in a story, in a novel if you think of Vonnegut, and so it goes.


Evan Keely: Right.


John Banther: But one thing I want to point out right away is you'll notice that light and playful character is right from the beginning. You'll notice that the first time the oboe plays this theme, but not as many instruments or soloists jump in right away. It's like the oboe has to back and coax them along, and then they're more willing to jump in together.


Evan Keely: One of the things that Haydn does that makes this piece so exciting and fun and interesting is the way the soloists sometimes are all playing together, but very often you'll have one come in and then another will do something that imitates that and then the little duets, and they're not all playing together necessarily in a way that really keeps it interesting.


John Banther: And after the introduction, the soloists are really fully leading the music. And listen for how Haydn combines these instruments. Sometimes it's winds like bassoon and oboe solo against the string soloist, violin and cello. Sometimes it's a different mixture. Sometimes they're really just dovetailing each other. Listening to this with more intent because it's been quite a while since I've really listened to this intently, this piece, but this time, these moments, they take on a kind of operatic feeling for me, almost a quartet at times or a duet. I think of a funny fun moment in a Mozart opera towards the end.


Evan Keely: There's definitely an operatic quality to this whole piece. And you might even say to the Sinfonia Concertante genre in general, you think of the famous Mozart violin and viola Sinfonia Concertante, and it's like a duet of these two characters, and you'll hear a lot of operatic twists in this Haydn piece as well.


John Banther: And Haydn adds playfulness and lighthearted nature to this with some musical, I don't want to say tricks or gimmicks, but devices. One of them we know from Haydn is starting and stopping the music. Sometimes in a symphony he would stop and you might think it's over and people would clap or something, but he starts and stops here in a way that makes it feel very self- aware to my ears like, " Oh wait. Oh, now we can go."


Evan Keely: Yeah, he really makes you pay attention with these unison rests that he throws in.


John Banther: And interesting moments and the harmony as well.


Evan Keely: Yeah, there's this weird chord about three minutes in, and we're in this sort of strange place. It's a D flat major first inversion chord. We're in B flat major. And I could get into the music theory and lots of detail there, but it's a related harmony, but it's kind of distant from the main key, and it sounds a little, for lack of a better term, funky. And yet it fits right in. It's this crazy thing that happens, and yet it seems like it's exactly what should have happened. And it's a very Haydn- esque gesture it seems to me.


John Banther: It does really grab you and it sounds like, oh, we're going into some kind of development section with lots of extra harmony and sounds that aren't to our key of B flat major. But then it goes back before we get to that development type section where the music is really taking on or really going on to different paths, straying from the path of a B flat major.


Evan Keely: So we were speaking earlier about this two eighth notes on a downbeat bum- bum, 2, 3, 4, dum- dum, and you have a lot of this with Haydn, and especially in this piece. One of the things I really love about it is you have this thematic material. Then he breaks it down into smaller pieces and you can really see how Beethoven picked this up. Beethoven, of course, studied with Haydn for a brief period when Beethoven was a young man. And Haydn is really a master of this, of taking thematic material, breaking it down into smaller bits, and then toward the end of the movement you have these fuller statements of thematic materials once again, but it's a way of keeping the music flowing and adding excitement.


John Banther: I like that because you do hear moments where it's like all of a sudden it's like, " Oh wait, that's like a seed of Beethoven. If I took that rhythm outside and put it in the ground and watered it, Beethoven would sprout up or something."


Evan Keely: That's a good way of putting it, John.


John Banther: And the transitions, even though sometimes it's like start and stop, it's very smooth. You're kind of into the next section before you realize it. It has, for me, it's kind of delightful and self- aware. I hope that comes across the way I mean it because there's a type of feeling to this music, it knows what it's doing. This is to have fun. It's a very self- indulgent type of work too.


Evan Keely: Yeah, yeah. And there's a lot we could say about this. Haydn is really at the height of his powers at this phase of his life, and he's there in London. At this point he'd been there for about a year, a little over a year. People absolutely loved him. It was a great success for him personally and professionally. So you can really see him just feeling very confident in himself when he writes this piece.


John Banther: And a concerto usually has at least one cadenza, right? So how does that work when you have four soloists on stage? At times, I think the cadenza is in part, the whole orchestra stops and they're basically playing the orchestra parts themselves and the solo parts. But they also slow down. It gives the music and each other room to breathe. There's a lot of dramaticism in here as well. And this is a piece that is fun to listen to, but also great to see in concert because the way the soloists will be interacting with each other in these little moments.


Evan Keely: Right. And like you were saying, this is where a cadenza would be where a soloist would very often improvise in the 18th century. And of course you have four instrumentalists. I guess they could, but Haydn writes it all out.

I especially love this dramatic, there's this unison F to G flat. You don't have a lot of unison in this piece. And so when you hear it, it's really striking and it's a weird sort of this G flat is this funny note. It's like a Dizzy Gillespie wrong note almost. And it really grabs your attention. And like you said, John, that playful way of the four of them just having a fun together toward the end of the movement with this cadenza is really just, it's a very joyful kind of feeling.


John Banther: And how they get out of the cadenza is really fun because you hear these trills, and I mean, how many cadenzas do we hear? Most of them really, you hear this trill on the solo instrument and then that ushers in the accompaniment back in, and then you frolic to the end of the movement. And here we have the trills, the instruments are coming in, but then the bassoon has this really fun up- and- down line that breaks that up, before the orchestra comes back in. And the best part about this is the bassoon line is completely unnecessary. If you take this out and just have the trills and go to the end of the movement, well, this is what it sounds like. Now, you have to pretend in your mind that bassoon was trilling as well. But if that was in the concert, I can't imagine anyone would even bat an eye.


Evan Keely: Right. It sounds fine.


John Banther: Yeah.


Evan Keely: And yet Haydn adds that extra little sauce that gives it an additional zing. And it's fun, it's humorous, it's delightful, but it doesn't have a kind of frivolous or self- indulgent quality to it.


John Banther: If I had to describe this as a cookie, it would be a cookie that you're eating, and halfway through you say, " What is that, nutmeg?"


Evan Keely: Exactly. There's a little added spice that just gives it that, " Oh, wait a minute. This is even more interesting than I realized."


John Banther: So this is a concerto or concertante that I can't imagine the audience not clapping at least after the first movement. And you might think that audience is disagreeing on when to applaud is a new phenomenon limited to Facebook arguments, but it's been around for a while. There's a really fantastic letter someone wrote who was at this concert who saw this premiere.

" It is truly wonderful what sublime and august thoughts this master weaves into his works. Passages often occur which make it impossible to listen without becoming excited. We are altogether carried away by admiration, and forced to applaud with hand and mouth. This is especially the case with Frenchmen of whom there are so many here that all the public places are filled with them." London was filling with aristocratic refugees from the French Revolution. " You know that they have great sensibility and cannot restrain their transports so that in the middle of the finest passages in the soft adagio, they clap their hands in loud applause, and thus mar the effect."


Evan Keely: Yeah. The more things change, the more they remain the same. We're arguing about this today and we argued about it in the 19th and the 18th centuries and so forth. And how do you behave in a concert when you're just so thrilled by the music? Do you sit there in silent reverence and enjoy the music silently? Well, there's something to be said for that. But sometimes you just got to go, " Woo- hoo." And Haydn really understands this.


John Banther: There is another mention of this concert, a kind of review. " The last performance at Solomon's concert deserves to be mentioned as one of the richest treats, which the recent concert season has afforded, a new concertante from Haydn combined with all the excellencies of music. It was profound, airy, affecting, and original, and their performance was in unison with the merit of the composition."

Well, I mean, we're going to become a broken record because that's a lot of what this piece is. It's just fun. It's original in Haydn's own way, and the performance was great.


Evan Keely: Yeah. And Haydn, of course, among his many ... among many aspects of Haydn's genius, he was very shrewd. He knew how to write music that would be appealing. He was a genius. He wrote music that was very profound. But he also knew how to sell concert tickets. He knew how to get people excited and to sell scores. And this was an effort to compete in a very competitive musical environment. London 1792, there's these concert series that are happening, and he wants to draw a crowd and he wants to write something people are going to like, and he really succeeds brilliantly.


John Banther: And there's two signs of that coin as a musician. You're trying to write something to please an audience. I mean, we'll just leave that there. You're trying to write something to please an audience. But also, you want to please the concert presenter. You want to make them more happy. The audience is coming up after the concert saying, " That was amazing." The happier they are. And maybe that's why Solomon, the concert organizer was the violin soloist in the concert. And it sounds like the violin has a lot of juicy moments.


Evan Keely: The violin is really the star. I mean, it's not like the four soloists are equal in the entire piece. For much of it, they are, but Solomon definitely gets to shine in this performance.


John Banther: And the performance we're hearing is a recording featuring the Austro- Hungarian Haydn Orchestra with conductor Adam Fischer, and they've recorded all of the symphonies and more, I'm pretty sure, including this in the actual Haydn Hall at the Esterházy Palace where Haydn himself was living and writing and premiering works for the royal court at this palace. So I love that we get to hear the hall, at least in some way. You can hear a sense of the space in the recording. And Haydn would have no idea this could ever be possible, I imagine. And I doubt he ever even heard this piece in that hall.


Evan Keely: Probably not. Probably not. It's worth remembering too, John, when Haydn was in London, he had larger forces to work with than he had had when he worked at the Esterházy Palace for decades.


John Banther: That's true.


Evan Keely: He had a great ensemble there, great musicians to work with at Esterházy. But in London, it was even more of a goldmine for him. So he really just went to town, as it were.


John Banther: Yes.

Looking at the second movement now, this one feels like a competition as to who can be the most delicate. And I'll be honest, there's not a lot of music from this time period in this kind of soft, delicate nature that I'm always in love with. But there's something about this one that's just, it's nice and pleasing.


Evan Keely: Yeah. It's just this gorgeous lyricism, very simple melody, so beautiful. You have these pizzicato strings and the orchestra at the beginning, so the soloists really get to shine, and it's just so affecting and so hypnotic and beautiful.


John Banther: We've talked a little bit about the soloists and how they're playing together or being broken up into differing forces. The cello and violin swap roles. You think the cello, the lower instrument, it plays arpeggiated lines and accompaniment to a solo over top. Well, he flips it. So the violin is playing these moving arpeggiated lines while the cello has its own solo.

This solo and many other moments has moments that I think the musicians can really lean into. And that happens with the harmony and just the way he writes these melodies. But there's something very dolce, sweet when you get to lean into something like that.


Evan Keely: Part of the things I love about Haydn, he writes this music that's so expressive, but it's never sentimental. It's never cloying. He just hits the right balance.


John Banther: And the horn in this movement, Evan, I actually forget the horn is even playing. And then all of a sudden in this movement, it plays a more, I don't want to say important, but a bigger role.


Evan Keely: Well, you were saying earlier, John, about the cookie and you're eating a cookie, and then you suddenly realize there's this extra spice that you hadn't noticed before. And the horns, the two horns in this movement, they're silent for much of the movement. And then they suddenly come in and they just play this one long note, the two of them in unison, bum, and they just hold this long note. And it just adds this color and texture to the whole overall sound in such a subtle, but such a perfect way.


John Banther: And there is also a cadenza moment in this as well, and I'm kind of using that word loosely cadenza. But this is a fun part because we hear the soloists together on a high delicate line. It feels very uplifted, but you get the idea that one of these instruments feels left out and it's trying to get their attention. And it's the cello. They kind of have to repeat again and again before everyone joins and it moves on to the next part.


Evan Keely: The cello has this big solo in this piece, but then later on, the other three soloists are playing. The cello kind of gets left out, but then joins in. It's a really wonderful balance.


John Banther: And a big moment here is the orchestra is playing the theme, and it's the first time that they're really stepping out in this way. It's been the soloists. And because we've had that absence and just lighter accompaniment with that horn line, this really adds a whole big sound.


Evan Keely: And it's poignant too, I think because it's so brief. The orchestra just plays this one phrase of this main theme of the movement, and then the orchestra fades back into the accompanimental role.


John Banther: And the violin and cello, they reverse their roles from that earlier duet. Now the violin is a soloist with the cello playing that arpeggiated accompaniment. This is a movement that's decadent, it knows it. And I guess more dessert talk. I might compliment this by saying, " Oh, you know it's not too sweet."


Evan Keely: Right. It's just right.


John Banther: So let's talk more about the sound of this and the playful and sweetness of it. It's filled with these affecting and self- gratifying lines. But why? Why was Haydn writing this like this? To get everyone's love and infatuation and a big applause in a concert? Well, it's probably because he had his student, Pleyel, and I'm sure Haydn was very proud of the student because Pleyel became very successful, so successful he was putting pressure on Haydn in London because they were both premiering works there, and Pleyel was getting very popular with the audiences. And in fact, Pleyel wrote Sinfonia Concertantes too. One was played earlier the same year and got great reviews in the London papers.


Evan Keely: Right. He was quite popular in his day. Pleyel better remembered today as a piano designer, but a very popular composer in his lifetime. And as you pointed out, John, a student of Haydn's earlier, and they were friends. And then they were both thrust into this situation in London where they were rivals. There was a rival concert series, and Pleyel was kind of the star of the rival series. And I think the two of them handled it in a very gentlemanly way. But one of the ways you see that is Haydn is like, " Oh, well, Pleyel's had great success with these Sinfonia Concertantes style pieces. I'll write one, too." And he's not trying to make Pleyel look bad. He's just saying, " Hey, listen, I want to join the party, too." And they both were successful writing in that style.


John Banther: And we'll get into the third movement right after this.

Okay. Now, I mentioned opera or operatic ideas or qualities in that first movement. The third movement is truly operatic. This opening is dramatic. It's like the diva soloist jumps on stage into their big recitative moment, their big dramatic moment.


Evan Keely: Yes, very operatic writing here, and the violin is the diva.


John Banther: And everyone gets their turn, the bassoon, the cello, and the oboe. But as we've learned, Peter Salomon, the person signing the check, playing the violin, got a lot of attention and writing. And in another review it says, " Haydn directed for the first time the performance of a new concertante, the third movement of which seemed expressly calculated to show the brilliancy of Solomon's and the sweetness of his tone. The prevailing manner of this master pervaded every moment. It had all of his usual grandeur, contrasted by the levity of airy transition and the sudden surprises of abrupt rests. The company were very brilliant." And honestly, it sounds like the critic is trying to sell the music as well.


Evan Keely: Yeah, the critic seems to like both the composition and the performance, and it's easy to believe. Obviously the composition is great. And from what we know about Peter Salomon as a violinist, he was really good. What a pairing to have this great composer and this great player together on the stage.


John Banther: Bassoon comes in, oboe comes in, and the cello isn't doing a whole lot until it gets its own moment. And it feels like Evan, a lot of the solo moments for the cello sound quite high. It sounds like it's riding in the high tessitura register.


Evan Keely: Really high in the range of the instrument, yes.


John Banther: Trills have played some fun roles in this piece, and this is one where it almost feels like, " Oh, is this like a seat of Beethoven where the orchestra gets this turbulent brooding trill?" That's just as brief transitional moment, but it feels like, oh my gosh, almost like this is what be Beethoven is standing on, basically.


Evan Keely: Yeah, definitely.


John Banther: And it ushers in a kind of surprising moment.


Evan Keely: Right. There's this unexpected twist harmonically and thematically, it seems like we're just about to end the piece. And then there's this, " Oh, not quite. We've got one more thing to say." But then instead of going off in this whole other direction, it just brings us back to the home key and brings us to the end of the piece. But it's just this little surprise, so Haydn- esque in that bringing in the unexpected in a way that's so delightful.


John Banther: As you said, Haydn is really at the height here. He's in his late 50s. He's got nothing to prove. And we just see so many of these Haydn- esque ideas poured into here, the playfulness, the starting and stopping also towards the end. It is a fun work to listen to, but as I said, seeing the interaction of the soloists on stage in these playful moments is what really elevates the experience. So if you ever get a chance to see it, do so. And I'll also put a video on the show notes page as well.

Now, if you enjoyed this one, you will probably love the one by his student Pleyel. That was made earlier in the year, in 1792. It's in F major. I don't know if you've heard it Evan, but it's really, really, really, really, really good.


Evan Keely: Pleyel is a really fine composer, perhaps not quite of the titanic stature of his teacher, Josef Haydn, but a composer definitely worth knowing and listening to.


John Banther: He had his finger on the pulse, and Haydn knew that, and I think that's what brought us here.

Well, thank you so much Evan for joining me for Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante.


Evan Keely: Great opportunity to dig deeper into this delightful piece. Thank you, John.


John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to classicalbreakdown@ weta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.