Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 in C Major, Il Distratto, (“The Absent-Minded Gentleman”) has been called “the funniest piece of symphonic music ever written.” (Kenneth Woods)
The six-movement Symphony was conceived originally as incidental music for a 1774 German-language adaptation of Le Distrait, a farcical comedy by the French playwright, Jean François Regnard. The play centers around the buffoonish misadventures of a man who is so absent-minded that he nearly forgets his own wedding day. Haydn’s witty and inventive music mirrors the drama with an unlimited supply of wild and zany jokes and surprises. As with Leandre, the play’s hapless, daydreaming protagonist repeatedly stumbles into a jam and then thrillingly escapes.
The Symphony’s first movement (Adagio – Allegro di molto) grew out of the play’s Overture. It begins with a pompous musical “call to order,” followed slyly by a melody so uneventful that it seems coquettish. It feels like the mock-serious setup to a joke. With a twinkle in his eye, Haydn seems to be telling us to “buckle up” for the wacky drama to come. The exposition begins as an excited whisper before erupting into a belly laugh. Suddenly, partway through the second theme, the forward motion grinds to a halt. A single, awkwardly repeating chord dies away, and we have the sense that Haydn has forgotten the way forward. This is only one of a series of “absent-minded” missteps which occur. The development section introduces a motif from the wrong symphony. It’s the falling arpeggio line which opens Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony.
In the second movement (Andante), a gently flowing melody is interrupted repeatedly by a spirited military fanfare. Two strikingly different musical “characters” are thrown together. The development section brings a parody of a French folk dance.
The courtly Minuet is filled with bizarre twists and turns which include a passing excursion into fugal counterpoint. The Trio section takes a dark turn to C minor with a quotation of a Balkan folk song and a bagpipe drone.
The thrillingly breathless Presto which follows functions as a false finale. It culminates with the kind of celebratory flourish which could have brought the Symphony to a satisfying close. Yet, it is followed by a serene, lamenting Adagio. (Haydn gives this music the marking di Lamentatione). The gentle melody is subjected to a series of “inappropriate” interruptions, which include trumpet fanfares and an impromptu dance which brings the movement to a silly and frolicking close.
The Finale (Prestissimo) puts a wild punctuation mark on this unconventional Symphony. Haydn has one more practical joke up his sleeve, as the violins realize that they have forgotten to tune before the downbeat. Describing Symphony No. 60 as “a seriously crazy piece of music,” the conductor Kenneth Woods says,
Haydn uses most of the 20th-century ‘isms’ in this piece—surrealism, absurdism, modernism, poly-stylism, and hops effortlessly between tightly integrated symphonic argument and rapid-fire cinematic jump-cutting. This is Haydn at his absolute boldest—he undermines every expectation, and re-examines every possible assumption about music.
Inspired by Haydn: Anna Clyne’s “Sound and Fury”
The contemporary English composer, Anna Clyne (b. 1980) drew inspiration from Haydn’s Il Distratto for Sound and Fury, a work for chamber orchestra composed in 2019. While Sound and Fury unfolds in a single movement, its six subdivisions suggest the structure of Haydn’s Symphony. Elements from the Symphony are redeveloped in ways that include “layering, stretching, fragmenting and looping.” Clyne explains,
Each of the movements has a very distinct personality, so I was able to extract little ideas. Sometimes it would be a rhythmic idea; sometimes it would be finding how Haydn weaves themes together through the movements. He’s so careful with that, you can often find those threads.
Amid these threads comes a fleeting quote from Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Mixed into this motivic stew, and forming the title of the piece, are the words of Shakespeare. In the fifth section, as a harmonic progression from Haydn’s lamenting Adagio loops, we hear the final soliloquy of Macbeth upon learning of the death of his wife:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- Haydn: Symphony No. 60, Il Distratto, Hob.I: 60, Giovanni Antonini, Il Giardino Armonico linnrecords.com