The Monday post

surprise blogHere’s part of a live recording of Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony — the surprise part. Marc Minkowski conducts Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, in a performance at the Wiener Konzerthaus in 2009.

Unless you want the surprise to be spoiled, don’t read further until you’ve clicked the link and listened.

If you Google this performance, you’ll find that some people hate this. The orchestra playing nothing, where the surprise loud chord is supposed to be! The orchestra starting the piece again, and this time shouting, instead of playing the chord! Bad, bad, bad. Not what Haydn intended. Won’t stand up on repeated listening.

But does the original surprise stand up on repeated listening? Not at all. The loud chord, coming in the midst of very soft music, isn’t a surprise anymore. We know it’s coming. So the point of the surprise moment — that it’s supposed to surprise us — is lost.

As for what Haydn intended, here we have to look at what we think is important about this (or any other) piece of classical music. We often hear that the mission of a classical performer is to realize the composer’s intentions. Which in practice turns out to mean executing precisely what’s in the score, studying deeply to understand what the notations in the score mean, and studying performance practice of the composer’s time to understand the notations in their historical context.

And for many people it also means using the instruments of the composer’s time. (Which Minkowski does, by the way.)

This is a scholarly approach to music, and quite an external one, paying attention only to the notated events of the piece — the notes, rhythms, dynamics, and so on — and not its meaning, which often is far more simple than scholarly analysis might care to suggest.

Which is true in this case. What were Haydn’s intentions in this movement? To surprise his listeners. So if a performance doesn’t surprise them, it fails, because it’s not doing what Haydn wanted.

The original surprise was a slam dunk. First, musical pieces (in Haydn’s time) were often played only once. So if you went to a concert, you were likely to hear new music, music you hadn’t heard before.

Second, people talked during performances. You might think that would lessen the surprise of anything that happened, but in this case, I’d think it made the surprise more vivid. You’re talking to your friend, your confessor, or your mistress, and the music — in the second movement of the symphony — begins so slowly, so very lightly, almost tiptoeing past your ear.

So, listening with half your attention, you think it’s going to keep doing that. And then boom! A big, loud chord. You’re surprised much more than a completely alert listener would be, because the chord has more than a musical impact. It’s an environmental surprise, so to speak, like an explosion in the street. Boom! 

Haydn knew what he was doing. The surprise would surely have worked, when the symphony was premiered. To make the moment work now, however, is a different story, since everybody knows the chord is coming. So you have to think of something else to do. Minkowski did that. I think it works.

And to complain that it wouldn’t work in subsequent performances misses the point, which is that the symphony wasn’t meant to have subsequent performances. Which then means if we want to make the piece do what Haydn wanted it to, we’d better perform it rarely. And think of a new surprise each time.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Ariel says

    Come on !! that’s stretching it a bit to prove a point that doesn’t have substance .Minkowski
    whom I appreciate did a” surprisingly stupid ” bit of business in this conducting of Haydn.
    Minkowski in this assumed Haydn couldn’t get an idea across without his idiotic tampering .
    Those familiar with the work of course “know ” when the” surprise” will come — after hearing
    it once the surprise is no longer the” surprise”, but anticipation of how we get to the surprise as in”we all know how this goes ,listen how simply well written it is & how it leads to the “surprise ” Boom ! which
    however anticipated is still a “surprise ” but on a different level of understanding .
    Those that are familiar with the play “Hamlet ” know at the end he is dead as a door nail ,
    but for a first time viewer the death comes as a surprise to the viewer and Hamlet . but we still go to see and hear the play .. it is the “journey” to that ending that intrigues, the same for the “Boom ” however simple it may sound .

  2. Gavin Borchert says

    Yes, but: a surprise for whom? Can we really assume that “everybody knows the chord is coming”–even in Vienna, where listeners are more likely to be familiar with the joke than anywhere else? Surely it’s possible that some of those audience members were hearing the piece for the first time. (Maybe there were kids there at their first concert?)

    Naturally, you’d have to tailor the effect to the context, and what’d be a true surprise in Vienna might not be necessary in Thief River Falls, Minnesota–where you’d want to stick to the original scoring, since outside of its minor shock value, the scream sounds silly. (It’s easy to imagine someone brand-new to the work thinking, “Geez, that yelling was cheesy. Classical music is stupid.”) One thing one could do, to ensure that people who don’t know the work really get the full impact, is simply not give it away–don’t mention the loud chord in the program notes and don’t list the Symphony No. 94 on the program with the subtitle “Surprise.”

    Also, Ariel has a point: No work of art is ever really a surprise on a second reading, but we engage artworks for reasons other than merely being startled. When you re-encounter a work, you kind of make a bargain with it, entering into its world as if you don’t know how it’ll unfold–a suspension not of disbelief, but of awareness: Will Elizabeth marry Darcy after all? Will Ilsa leave with Victor Laszlo or stay with Rick? These outcomes are rewarding and moving every time, even without the surprise factor. I think the same is true with familiar music, even the Haydn. I don’t object to what Minkowski did, but I don’t quite buy the rationale either. And to make the slippery-slope argument, just for fun: Where do you stop? Rewrite the modulation at the end of Bolero? Remove the sudden ff in the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth? Fill in the silences at the end of Sibelius’ Fifth with ringtones?

  3. ariel says

    Gavin Borchert- has come up with an intelligent solution that some how evaded Minkowski
    who was too busy being a conductor with a mission in updating Haydn. Just list the work
    as was originally listed , symphony #94 .and if I know my Minnesota and Viennese audiences the majority will be surprised .Those in the “know” will have a great time watching those that
    are not savy to the work and the surprise will be on two levels .I differ with Borchert in that I
    object very much to second raters trying to improve on the first rate . If Minkowski wants
    to give us a” modern” surprise then do so – write a work that will surprise us but don’t
    go around tampering with the works of past masters -they knew what they were doing >
    Only in music is such vandalism tolerated under guise of a creative approach .. As to
    the ringtones and Sibelius Borchert is closer to that truth than he can imagine .