Franz Joseph Haydn

Symphony No. 63 in C major ("La Roxelane"), H. 1/63

    Description by James Carson

    Following Haydn's "Sturm und Drang" period of the late 1760s and early 1770s, there came a stretch when most of the composer's creative energy was devoted to cranking out operas and other stage works -- as many as two a week! -- for the two theaters maintained by his patron Prince Esterházy. For the most part, these demands caused the composer's symphonic output to drop off during this period; in one instance, however, the one genre actually helped to enrich the other.

    The Symphony No. 63 in C major is subtitled "La Roxelane" after the heroine of a play by one Charles Simon Favart, entitled Les Trois Sultanes ("The Three Sultans"). In 1777, the play was given at Prince Esterházy's palace, and Haydn, as his job description required, supplied a suite of incidental music to accompany the performance. Included in that suite was what Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon calls "a bewitchingly attractive double variation movement" depicting Favart's protagonist. This movement swept Europe over the next year or so in various piano arrangements, which were the rough eighteenth-century equivalent of MTV or National Public Radio; and Haydn therefore resolved to get some more mileage out of it himself. He added adding new opening and closing movements, along with the obligatory minuet, to form a standard four-movement symphony, which was published around the end of 1779 and became a considerable hit in its own right.

    The opening allegro begins with a sort of fanfare in the unison strings, re-stated by the woodwinds. Amusingly enough, the movement simply peters out after a few more bars; whereupon Haydn, tongue firmly in cheek, proceeds to start over with the same theme again. This time the music manages to find its way to a sinuous secondary subject in the violins, then to a rather dark central development section cast largely in the minor mode. The concluding recapitulation is exceptionally compact -- partly because it omits that curious "false-start" episode from the beginning!

    The famous "Roxelane" movement comes next, consisting of a gently lilting theme followed by five variations alternating between major and minor tonalities. Of these, the first features the woodwinds; the third is punctuated by a "surprise" forte episode, foreshadowing the later symphony that was to bear that nickname. The ensuing minuet brackets a charming duet between oboe and bassoon. This movement's opening theme seems unassuming enough at first blush, but pay close attention to its outline: Three quick ascending notes, followed by a return to the first and lowest note, repeated several times at a slower pace. Then listen carefully to the beginning of the finale: It's virtually the same figure, just played faster! Here Haydn, in his unassuming fashion, paves the way for a principle of thematic unification between movements that was to become central in the oeuvre of such later nineteenth-century composers as Cesar Franck and Johannes Brahms.

    Parts/Movements

    1. Vivace
    2. Allegretto piu tosto Allegro
    3. Menuetto & Trio
    4. Presto

    Appears On

    Year Title / Performer Label / Catalog # AllMusic Rating
    2019
    Profil - Edition Günter Hänssler
    PH 19027
    2018
    Hänssler Classic
    HC 18024
    2016
    Decca
    4789604
    2010
    Decca
    2009
    Deutsche Grammophon
    2009
    Denon Records
    00795041953223
    2009
    Denon Records
    2009
    Decca
    001286502
    2009
    Sony Classical / Sony Classical Essential Classics / Sony Music Distribution
    88697443312
    2008
    Landscape Classics / Zebralution
    2007
    Brilliant
    93105
    2004
    Various Artists
    Brilliant
    92395
    2003
    Scandinavian Classics
    220552
    2002
    Brilliant
    99925
    2000
    Decca
    466941
    1999
    Nimbus
    5590/4
    1997
    Philips
    454335
    1996
    London
    448531
    1994
    Naxos
    550757
    Brilliant
    99925/16-21
    Brilliant
    93105/6
    Brilliant Classics
    8635/29
    Brilliant
    92395/4
    Deutsche Grammophon
    427337
    London
    425920