Wake Up and Listen: A Little History of Musical Surprise

Exploring the context of Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony and Jacques Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld

The use of surprise in the armory of the composer likely goes back as far as it has been part of the repertoire of the soldier. The glimpses of storm clouds in Vivaldi’s “Summer” from The Four Seasons would likely have raised an eyebrow or two, and Mozart’s closing chords of his Musical Joke certainly intended to startle. Oftentimes surprise was simply a natural partner of the creativity of musical development, and in this category we see Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 KV271 in its unexpectedly early introduction of the solo instrument, just as Mendelssohn would later do with the opening to the third movement of his E minor Violin Concerto, bringing us another step into the Romantic period.

Unintended surprises have their role in music history as well, the stunning energy of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony bewildering an audience better acquainted to a more delicate palate. Whether or not Stravinsky intentionally employed eroticism and pagan images to his Rite of Spring for pure shock effect, it was (along with the choreography) what it achieved upon its first audience, where arguments eventually led to a riot. Rumour has it that the composer had a self-satisfied smile upon the rough reception, knowing that scandal would only bring larger audiences upon the next curtain call. This is a reaction that perhaps the founders of rock-and-roll, once upon a time “devil-music”, could appreciate. In the 20th century, surprise was intended as much on as off the stage with “aleatoric” music based on chance: performers not knowing what they were going to play until a throw of dice or a toss of a coin determined it directly within the performance.

Audiences of classical music today face a unique disadvantage in the sense that to some extent we have lost the naïveté necessary to enjoy the element of surprise. When we have experienced the bombast of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the wartime depictions of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, it is somewhat difficult to consider all but the most original interpretations of Beethoven’s 5th as eye-opening. The problem with surprise is the necessity of novelty: John Cage’s opus of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of unexpected silence (complete with page-turns), was originally intended to awaken the audience to listen to sounds we all take for granted: the sounds of shuffling programme notes, coughs, and feet shuffling. Today’s audiences know the game plan a little too well, and performances divert from the original goal, with people now arriving in concert halls with the full intention of listening to, and producing, absolute silence. The challenge thus is for us to play the role of the child listening to the bedtime story, while pretending not to know, as the parent does, how the fairy tale ends.

The intent of the “Surprise” Symphony has long been coloured by the story of Count Orloff, that Haydn was tired of audiences falling asleep at performances. To counter this, he purportedly employed a combination of percussion and brass loudly and suddenly in the Andante, so that, according to Orloff, “to the great delight of those who were awake, the most obstinate sleepers were roused from their slumbers and, not knowing what had happened, were at a loss to hide their confusion.”

Dr Max Unger asserts, however, that the deer-in-the-headlights theory is more urban myth than historical fact. Instead, Haydn had been self-pressed to produce something particularly outstanding because of competition from his student Playel, who had orchestra concerts around the same time. The London premier of Haydn’s symphony in 1792 was a resounding success, with the audience calling for encores. It is a less flashy story than that of Orloff’s, but as Unger notes that there is a greater significance to reality: “The interesting thing to note is that the drum did not rouse the London audience from slumber, but ‘completely staggered’ them while they were attentively listening.”

The Andante movement, to which the Symphony owes its nickname (given by flautist Andrew Ashe and approved of by Haydn), has a melody with hints of a nursery rhyme. Beyond the unsuspecting choice of tune, Mark Evan Bonds notes that the orchestration, texture and rhythmic structure were chosen particularly to emphasize predictability – so that when the sudden drumbeat did arrive, the surprise would gain its maximum effect. Once it was done, and the movement being in the form of theme-and-variations, the audience would then wait for a repeat of the “surprise”. Instead, the drumbeats then appear on more conventional beats, Bonds further explaining that the return of the normal has now become a second surprise. The rest of the symphony remains in the norm of the day, with a first movement beginning with a slow introduction, and the third movement a menuetto-trio. The quick, final movement carries a small shadow of surprise in the use of a timpani roll, a final wink to complete the picture.

Offenbach had a rather less subtle approach in his opera Orpheus in the Underworld. A production of satire, he aimed a sarcastic composer’s pen towards local scandals, and less-than-stellar performances of the Comédie Française. However, the main goal was to parody Gluck’s opera, Orfeo ed Euridice. The music of Act II, preluded at the end of the overture, has since placed as accompaniment to the Can-can dance – originally a “risqué galop infernal” at the height of the parody.

~ Andrew Filmer


One response

4 04 2013
Dunhill Ahn


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