Symphony No. 94 (Haydn)

Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 94 in G major was composed in 1791. It is often called by its nickname, the Surprise Symphony.

Haydn was well known for including jokes in his music, and the Surprise Symphony includes what is probably the most famous one: he wrote a loud "surprise" chord near the beginning of the second movement after a relatively tranquil opening. After the chord, the music immediately quiets down again, leaving the audience bewildered.


Composition and premiere

Haydn wrote the symphony in London for a concert series he gave during the first of his two visits to England (1791-1792). The premiere took place on March 27, 1792, with Haydn leading the orchestra seated at a fortepiano.

As with Haydn's England visits in general, the premiere was greatly successful. One reviewer wrote that the symphony was "equal to the happiest of this great Master's conceptions." In his feeble old age Haydn remembered the premiere with nostalgia, recounting to his biographer Griesinger: was my wish to surprise the public with something new, and to make a debut in a brilliant manner, in order not to be outdone by my pupil Pleyel [who was leading a rival series of concerts] ...the first Allegro of my Symphony was received with countless bravos, but the enthusiasm reached its highest point in the Andante with the kettledrum stroke. Ancora, ancora! sounded from every throat, and even Pleyel complimented me on my idea.

Toward the end of his active career Haydn wove the theme of the second movement into an aria of his oratorio The Seasons (1801), in which the bass soloist depicts a plowman whistling Haydn's tune as he works.

The Surprise Symphony is widely performed and recorded today.


The Surprise Symphony is scored for a Classical-era orchestra consisting of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and the usual string section consisting of first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.

In recent decades performances of the work on historical instruments have become popular. Many listeners feel that the older instruments increase the effectiveness of this music by offering greater dynamic and timbral contrasts.

A typical performance of the Surprise Symphony lasts about 23 minutes.


Like all of Haydn's "London" symphonies, the work is in four movements, marked as follows:

Adagio - vivace assai

A lyrical 3/4 introduction precedes a highly rhythmic main section in 6/8 time. As with much of Haydn's work, the first movement is written in so-called "monothematic" sonata form; that is, the movement to the dominant key in the exposition is not marked by a "second theme"


This is the "surprise" movement, a theme and variations in the subdominant key of C major. The theme is in two eight-bar sections, each repeated. Haydn sets up the surprise, which occurs at the end of the repeat of the first section, by making the repeat pianissimo with pizzicato in the lower strings. The four variations go as follows.

  • embellishment in sixteenth notes by the first violins
  • a stormy variation in C minor with trumpets and timpani
  • solos for the first oboist and flutist
  • alternating forte in triplets with a lyrical repeat

In the coda section, the opening notes are stated once more, this time reharmonized with gently dissonant diminished seventh chords over a tonic pedal.

Menuetto: Allegro molto

A minuet and trio, in ternary form. The key returns to G major. The tempo marking marks the historical shift away from the old minuet and toward the scherzo; by the time of his last quartets Haydn had started to mark his minuets presto, and the scherzo became the norm with Beethoven's symphonies.

Finale: Allegro molto

A characteristically rhythmically propulsive Haydn finale. The time signature is 2/4, but rhythmically the music is likely to be felt as being "in one"; i.e. just one beat to the bar. A higher-level beat is defined by the prevalence of four-bar phrases.

Formally, the movement could be taken to be an example of sonata rondo form, with the opening bars making extra appearances (relative to ordinary sonata form) both at the beginning and in the middle of the development section. The stirring coda emphasizes the Sinfonie (Haydn) ja:交響曲第94番 (ハイドン)


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