Overture to L'Isola Disabitata

Franz Joseph Haydn

While working for Prince Nicolas Esterhazy, Haydn composed fourteen operas, nine in Italian, and five in German. Since the Prince loved operas, Haydn had a ready audience at the estate, and since he was required to write an opera a year, he also had many opportunities to experiment and to produce in this form. L’isola disabitata was number ten (some say number eight.)  Said to be his favorite, the Overture was composed in 1789 and  premiered on December 6. During that season, he premiered not only three of his own operas,  but also staged operas by Paisiello, Astaritta, Anfossi, Gazzaniga Sarti, Nauman, Franchi, Piccini and Felici.

The Overture, sometimes likened to a miniature symphony, is a fine specimen of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang style. There are several themes, emerging in a segmented structure, contextualized in rich and colorful orchestration.

Sturm und Drang refers to a practice of releasing sudden, wild emotion which is given free expression in contrast to the  enlightenment aesthetic value of emotional control and rationalism. It manifested itself primarily between the late 1760s and early 1780s, deriving from the title of a play (Der Wirrwarr oder Sturm und Drang) by Friedrich Maximilian Klinger, the theme of which interestingly was the American Revolution. The protagonist, a young Englishman, Carl Bushy, searches for heroism and joins in the fight of the American revolt. “The only ecstasy I know is to be in the middle of a war…” he claimed. (from Portrayals Americans on World Stages essay by Sabine Klein)

Sturm und Drang behavior was evidenced in literature and music. The purpose was to provide a counter current to polite control  by sudden shock and unfettered display of exuberance and energy. In music the demonstration featured angular melodic intervals, agitation, and loud dynamics. It could also display in highly emotional music with sudden fits and starts. Although Haydn embraced this element in the decade between 1760–70, he never used the term himself.

Marked Largo, the forte beginning announces six tutti unisons before a tiny theme is introduced quietly by the strings, ending with three repeated eighth notes, a final sustained tone, and unexpected silence. Then, Haydn ignites a sudden explosion (Vivace assai) which bursts from the entire orchestra. Strings are at the forefront, leading the charge with racing eighth notes and prominent accents.  A soft gasping second idea offers a fine contrast before its lifespan is interrupted  with insistent ideas which sweep it away in a merciless conflagration. (Sturm und Drang in full operation.) Suddenly, a small minuet style episode makes an appearance, thinly orchestrated, dancing with poise and elegance. But not for long—the orchestra again explodes, wiping all delicate remnants away in a furious conclusion with three firm chords.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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