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The Seasons, and Haydn slows down

Winter in the Viennese woods

Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons)
Leipzig : Breitkopf & Härtel, [1802]

Stanford University Libraries, Memorial Library of Music, MLM 494

Link to downloadable images of this work: volume one | volume two

Composition, performance and publication of The Seasons quickly followed the resounding success of The Creation. The libretto, also provided by Baron von Swieten, was a fragmented adaptation of James Thompson’s epic poem, first published in the 1730s and which enjoyed broad popularity at the end of the century. The private premiere took place at the Schwarzenberg Winter Palace on April 24, 1801, and the public premiere took place in the Redoutensaal at the Hofburg Palace, on May 29 of that same year.

Popular and critical reception was somewhat mixed.  Greisinger reviewed the work in glowing terms in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung (May 1801):

“…the most powerful penetration of colossal ideas, the immeasurable quantity of happy ideas surprised and overpowered even the most daring of imaginations.”

Another reviewer allowed a bit of criticism to creep in:

“…the imitation of the cock’s crowing at dawn, the gun’s explosion during the hunt, seem to me to be a mistaken concept of tone-painting in music, perhaps even a degradation of this art.”

Others were also less than enthused with the programmatic style, which was beginning to be considered passé by the Viennese concert-going public. Some thought the subject matter was not sufficiently lofty for Haydn’s talent. Clumsy translations of the text into English and French did not help matters. Haydn himself was unhappy with the libretto. In a famous letter to the composer and arranger August Müller, Haydn comments on one of the text-setting challenges: “This whole passage, with its imitation of the frogs, was not my idea; I was forced to write this Frenchified trash.”

The dawn of the 19th century found Haydn in failing health, overly-sensitive to criticism, lacking stamina for composing, and somewhat jealous of Beethoven’s growing fame. His wife, with whom he shared a long and apparently strained relationship, died in 1800 while Haydn was working on The Seasons. His friend G.A. Silverstrope commented, “The Spring is already ready and Haydn is now writing with new zeal, since he recently had the fortune to lose his evil [böse] wife.”

By 1803 Haydn had largely retired from public life. Hummel took over his duties for Prince Esterházy. Accolades and honors continued to mount. His fame in the New World was solidified by the founding in Boston of the Handel & Haydn Society ("...for the purpose of improving the style of performing sacred music, and introducing into more general use the works of Handel and Haydn and other eminent composers.") That institution celebrates its bicentennial in 2015.

The Redoutensaal (Vienna), site of the public premiere of The Seasons.
It is also one of few remaining venues where Haydn conducted his works.

With thanks to Astrid Smith, Rare Book and Special Collections Digitization Specialist, and the Digital Production Group for providing downloadable images of the complete work.