Haydn’s Head Fake
16 May 2010
Inside the Classics

Franz Joseph Haydn, in addition to being one of the more underrated great composers these days, was famous for the sense of humor he deployed in his symphonies. There’s the ubiquitous “Surprise” Symphony, of course, and the “Farewell” Symphony, in which the players leave the stage one by one as the music is going on (supposedly Haydn’s not so subtle way of requesting that his orchestra be granted vacation time.) Despite his status as one of the most prominent composers of his day, Haydn never took himself or his music too seriously.

I bring this up because we just got done with a week of concerts that concluded with my favorite Haydn gag – the finale of his Symphony No. 90. (Yes, 90 – the man wrote a metric ton of music, usually on insane deadlines.) Essentially, Haydn wrote a false ending into the symphony – a climactic flourish followed immediately by four empty bars in which no one plays anything, after which the strings sneak back in and keep going. It’s a clear attempt to trick the audience into applauding before the piece is over, and it pretty much never fails. You can’t avoid the joke even if you wanted to, since Haydn wrote in the exact number of beats he wanted to be silent after the head fake.

I’ve played the piece a few times, under conductors with varying levels of interest in the joke.  (MN Orch violist Ken Freed once conducted it at the summer camp we both work at, and when the audience started applauding, he actually brought the orchestra up for a bow before continuing.) But I’d never seen anyone commit quite as fully to the impishness of the moment as Mark Wigglesworth did with us this week…

Did you notice how he actually started subtlely slowing down the tempo about 12 bars before the fakeout? Genius. And that huge yank we’re all doing with our bows was custom-ordered by Mark, too. Which might seem odd and unnecessary, since there’s no way the audience isn’t going to applaud. But there’s a reason for the extra dose of theatrics – technically, this second half of the finale has a repeat. No one ever takes it, since the joke’s already been made, and no one’s going to fall for it twice, right? Right?

Yup, we took the repeat. And Mark gave explicit orders that we were to sell the second head fake with everything we had, so as to create that wonderfully awkward moment you see above. Clearly, no one in the hall was actually fooled a second time, but if we were just going to hang there with our arms in the air, they almost had to go along with it. And besides, maybe that really is the end the second time around? …maybe?

Nope. And what I really love about this is that Haydn knew perfectly well that people weren’t going to be satisfied with just laughing for a moment at his joke – they’d definitely want to whisper with their neighbors about it for a few seconds. So for roughly 30 bars after the fake ending, nothing of consequence happens in the music. We’re essentially in a holding pattern while everyone gets it out of their system, and then we ramp up for the real ending, which you notice Mark was kind enough to signal to the crowd.

And the funniest (and most apropos) part about it, for me, was that this came at the end of a concert that had started with Wagner and Brahms, two of the least lighthearted composers in history, and fierce rivals besides. Nothing like giving your audience an hour of weighty, cerebral meat and potatoes, and then inviting Haydn to come and thumb his nose at everyone for dessert…

(Many thanks to MN Orch librarian Valerie Little for the camerawork…)

<March 2019>

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