Haydn’s twelve “London Symphonies” emerged during two extended visits to the English capital in the early 1790s. Commissioned by Johann Peter Salomon, a prominent violinist and concert organizer, these symphonies solidified Haydn’s status as a luminary in London’s musical scene. Premiered in venues like the Hannover Square Rooms and later the King’s Theater, these symphonies were met with enthusiastic audiences of around 500, making them major cultural events. The increasing size of London’s orchestras, with up to 60 musicians featuring double woodwinds, allowed Haydn to broaden the scope of his compositions. Despite being financially successful, Salomon’s concert series eventually faced challenges, prompting Haydn to collaborate with other presenters.
Amidst this musical ferment, Symphony No. 104, often dubbed the “London Symphony,” took its place as the twelfth and final work in this remarkable series. Its premiere in 1795 marked the culmination of Haydn’s symphonic output and solidified his reputation as a musical trailblazer in a city teeming with artistic fervor. The symphony not only encapsulates the spirit of the time but also serves as a testament to Haydn’s ability to captivate and innovate, leaving an enduring legacy that resonates far beyond the London of the 1790s.
The Adagio—Allegro opens with a grand introduction in D minor, leading into a joyful Allegro in D major. Haydn’s signature wit and unpredictability are evident as the symphony unfolds. The second movement, an Andante, unveils a lyrical melody in the strings undergoing enchanting variations, while a brief episode adds nuances through the minor mode. In the third movement, a lively D major Menuetto is paired with a modest Trio in the oboe and bassoon. The symphony concludes with a spirited Finale, featuring a folklike melody long assumed to be quoting from the street-song “Hot Cross Buns,” but has since been identified as “Oj Jelena,” a ballad sung by the Croatians living in Eisenstadt that Haydn must have heard during his earlier years with the Esterházy family. The symphony’s exuberant finale, with these folk-inspired elements, resonates with the diverse cultural tapestry of 18th-century London.