Il Distratto

AN ORCHESTRA OF ACTORS
Giovanni Antonini

 

Zit, zit, Serpina vuol così
B. Pergolesi, La serva padrona, Serpina’s aria

 

The theatrical character of Haydn’s symphonies is well known, full as they are of surprises and sudden changes in mood, but the Symphony no.60, ‘Il Distratto’, not only musically depicts a number of situations and characters from the play Le Distrait by Jean-Francois Regnard (1655-1709), but presents the orchestra itself as a dramatic protagonist. Thus, for example, at one point in the initial Presto the musicians begin to play a whole passage from Symphony no.45, the ‘Farewell’; that is, they become ‘distracted’ and perform the wrong piece. Or again, a few bars after the opening of the last movement (perhaps the best-known moment in the symphony) the violins stop to tune their fourth string because they had forgotten to do so, and then start over again.

 

So the orchestra does not merely draw ‘character portraits’, as in the Andante, where the opening theme, which probably describes the charme of the youthful Isabelle, is abruptly interrupted by the violas and wind instruments with a martial phrase that alludes to the surly Madame Grognac; it also becomes an active participant in the theatrical game of the symphony, a work that stands out as exceptionally original, indeed unique, even in Haydn’s output. Cimarosa’s Il maestro di cappella takes this topos even further, for here one of the main characters is actually the orchestra itself, disobedient and teasing, which is subdivided into its various sections: from the strings, through the individual wind instruments, until we come to the particularly undisciplined double bass and the horns, instruments that the Maestro does not like at all. All of them are reprimanded and instructed in how to achieve perfect execution, but eventually, at the end of the second aria, the soloist/Maestro is left to sing alone, a sign that the time allotted to him is probably over and that, in any case, a conductor and singer without an orchestra can do but little.

 

A sort of eighteenth-century ‘Orchestra Rehearsal’ alla Fellini, though far more innocent and without the surreal (ma non troppo . . .) sociological implications of the great Italian director’s masterpiece Prova d’orchestra. The Allegro and Presto of the delightful Symphony no.12 are characterised by a compositional vocabulary typical of the buffo genre, to the point where the opening movement includes an almost literal quotation from Serpina’s first aria in La serva padrona. This contrasts with the pathetic Adagio, a siciliana poised between the Neapolitan style and the idiom of C. P. E. Bach. The programme is completed by Symphony no.70. In the ascending direction of tre soggetti of the fugal finale, we can glimpse a favourable omen for the erection of the new Eszterháza opera house at the laying of its foundation stone – the occasion on which the symphony was first performed.