Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 was composed in London in 1795 and premiered there on May 4 of the same year. Haydn was a very prolific composer and wrote more than one hundred symphonies during his long career, the “London” Symphony being his last. From an eighteenth-century perspective, the orchestra Haydn wanted for this composition was quite large, reflecting the active concert life of the capital city of the nation that would soon lead the world economy. The D-major symphony is scored for four-part strings and a pair of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, French horns, trumpets, and timpani. The name “London” was not provided by the composer himself. Sometime in the nineteenth century, people began calling the composition as such simply because the work was written in London. Haydn, however, did not compose just this one symphony there; the composer created altogether twelve such compositions while he was in London between 1791 and 1792 as well as between 1794 and 1795. All of these symphonies—Symphonies Nos. 93-104—are indeed “London” compositions, but Symphony No. 104 alone received the nickname.
Most symphonies Haydn wrote were for his employer and patron Prince Nikolaus I of the wealthy Hungarian aristocratic Esterházy family. Haydn entered the service of the Esterházy court as Vice-Kapellmeister in 1761 and later became Kapellmeister, the position he kept for nearly thirty years until Nikolaus I’s death in 1790. When Prince Anton succeeded his father, Haydn’s duties as Kapellmeister were significantly reduced; consequently, it became possible for him to freely travel to any place he wished. He was by then highly regarded, and many musical establishments throughout Europe wanted to invite him to give concerts. Haydn eventually chose London for the place where he would receive fame and wealth for his glorious achievements.
Symphony No. 104 opens with a slow introduction, of which the first few measures sound rather mysterious. This is partly because the entire orchestra plays just two notes—D and A. This makes the audience feel uneasy, since these two notes alone would not define whether the work is in a major or minor key. Haydn keeps the dark colored sonority until the end of the introduction, which is followed by a lively but also majestic fast section in sonata-allegro form. The slow second movement is a set of variations, and the third is a full-length Menuetto and Trio. The finale is a grand and majestic movement, which begins with a bass pedal note.