A Musical Palindrome

As many people on the internet have pointed out, today (February 2, 2020) is an 8-digit calendrical palindrome—02/02/2020. A palindrome, of course, is a word or phrase that reads the same backwards and forwards. Some of the classics are

“Madam, I’m Adam”

(the first words ever spoken?). Or Napoleon’s supposed lament,

“Able was I, ere I saw Elba.”

Palindromes can also be musical, and I thought today was the perfect day to talk about a musical palindrome composed by Franz Joseph Haydn.

Franz Joseph Haydn

Haydn has always been one of my favorite composers, ever since I was a child and my mother supplied me with Lives of the Composers children’s books (still probably the source of much of my knowledge of music history). I loved the music, of course—I think I’m a classicist at heart—but I was also attracted to the way these biographies presented Haydn’s personality. The Haydn of my youthful reading was playful, with an irreverent sense of humor.

One example of this playfulness is his Symphony no. 94 in G major, composed in 1792 during the first of his visits to London. It is known as the “Surprise Symphony” from the fortissimo chord in the second movement that follows several bars of a pianissimo melody. According to legend, the chord was supposed to have awakened sleepy concert-goers who had feasted too heavily on English roast beef.1 Or take Symphony no. 45 in F# minor (1772), nicknamed the “Farewell” Symphony. Haydn spent much of his career as the Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Esterhazy in Hungary, composing and directing music for the entertainment of the court. When the Prince kept the musicians working for too long a time without a vacation (no Musicians’ Union in those days), Haydn responded by composing the Finale of the symphony so that one by one the musicians leave the stage, extinguishing their candles as they go until finally there is nothing but silent darkness. The Prince got the message.

With these examples in mind, I was delighted to discover an instance of Haydn’s musical wit in a piano composition that is playable for someone at my level. This is the Minuet movement from Haydn’s Piano Sonata in A major, Hob. XVI.262 The movement is marked “Minuet al Rovescio,” which means “Minuet in Reverse.” The first half of the Minuet is ten measures long, followed by another 10 measures that are the reverse of the first ten. In my edition, produced for student use, the second half is written out, but in the original publication, the pianist was expected to play the second half by starting at the end and reading backwards—right to left and bottom to top. What a mental workout that would be!

To make it clearer, here are the first and last measures of the Minuet. You can see how the second is the reverse of the first.

Measure 1 of Haydn’s “Minuet al Rovescio”
Final measure of Haydn’s “Minuet al Rovescio”

The twelve measures of the Trio section work the same way—measures one to twelve are played forwards, and then twelve to one are played backwards.

I was so intrigued by the structure of this Minuet that I decided to see what else I could find out about it, and I discovered that Haydn must have liked it so much that he used it twice. He originally composed it in about 1772 as the Minuet movement for his Symphony no. 47 in G major, which I was delighted to discover has the nickname “Palindrome” from this very movement.

I was also delighted to discover, when I went to imslp.org to get the music for the above images, that the site also had a transcription of the Minuet for violin and piano, done by Ferdinand David, the violinist for whom Mendelssohn wrote his violin concerto. That’s going on my to-be-played list!

I’m sure that Haydn was more complex, both as a man and as a composer, than the way he was presented in the biographies I read as a child, but I am delighted to be able to learn to play this small example of his inventiveness.

  1. This explanation is probably apocryphal, but it makes a good story.
  2. “Hob.” is an abbreviation for “Hoboken”–not the city in New Jersey that was the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, but Anthony Van Hoboken (1887-1983), the cataloger of Haydn’s compositions. Hoboken organized his catalog by genre; XVI is the piano sonatas.