The Classical era produced a skillful and prolific composer in Austrian musician Franz Joseph Haydn. During his long life, he experienced almost every type of musical environment in existence and composed at least a little in every musical form as well.
Born into a musical family in 1732, he was raised as an apprentice to a musician, which gave him both theoretical and practical musical knowledge. During his twenties, he struggled to maintain himself as an independent composer, occasionally working for the nobility; then at the age of 31 he became a court composer and his career began to flourish.
After almost thirty years working as chief musician for the court of the Esterhazy family, Haydn found himself justly famous as a master in the developing symphonic form, as well as for his chamber music. With the blessing of his employers, he began composing works commissioned by foreigners, and travelling around Europe to conduct them.
Between 1791 and 1795, at the behest of the impresario Johann Salomon, Haydn composed a set of 12 symphonies specifically for a musical audience in London, England. He also spent much time in England conducting these and other works by him, to the point that he was a fluent English speaker by the time he returned permanently to Vienna in 1796, where he lived for the remainder of his life.
The London cycle of symphonies contains several symphonies for which Haydn is still known today. They are considered his best, for they are remarkably fine works that foreshadow many of the developments that later took place in the mid- to late-1800’s. Among these is his Symphony No. 94 in G Major, popularly known both then and now as the Surprise Symphony.
While relatively straightforward as a whole, the symphony incorporates a fortissimo crash, for no apparent reason, near the beginning of the second movement, Andante. This unexpected bit of whimsy bemused and fascinated Haydn’s English audience, just as he no doubt intended.
Here is a link to the entire second movement. The surprise is in the first minute of the recording. I would say the exact time, but then what would happen to the suspense? Listen at least once. It’s quite humorous.
Of course, the work can stand on its own without the help of the surprise at all. For instance, this movement goes on to a C minor variation that sounds remarkably modern and incorporates a nice bit of brass orchestration.
The context of this symphony is vital, for Haydn, by this time, found himself composing for the public at large. In the 1750’s he was barely able to scrape by, living off of occasional publications of his early works and a few noble commissions. Now, forty years later, an entire educated public was eager for him to travel from Vienna to London to conduct symphonies old and new for them. What better indication of the importance of the middle class to the development of music? What more could an aged composer achieve, in return for a lifetime of court composition, than sudden popularity among common people? Indeed, Haydn had the honor of conducting the London symphonies in one of the earliest public concert halls in Britain, the Hanover Square Rooms. No longer was he, or his music, the exclusive privilege of the counts and royal houses. Now, the masses were willing and eager to hear his work.
Runciman, J.F. (2009). Haydn. (Reissue ed.). BiblioBazaar.
Hadden, J.C. (2010). Haydn. (Reissue ed.). London: Cambridge University Press.
Brendel, A. (2001). “Does classical music have to be entirely serious?”. In Margalit et. al. Isaiah Berlin: A Celebration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.