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.