The symphonies of the earlier set, now generally known as the 'Hamburg' symphonies, were commissioned in 1773 by Haydn's and Mozart's future patron, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. During the years 1771-1777 van Swieten was ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great and resided in Berlin. While there, he became fascinated by the North German musical tradition, so very different to that of his native Austria, and may have travelled to Hamburg to see Emanuel Bach in the hope of acquiring manuscripts of his father's works. In his commission, sent to Bach from Berlin, van Swieten requested that the composer 'give himself free reign, without regard to the difficulties of execution' which were bound to arise. Before sending off the six symphonies to van Swieten it was decided that the works should be heard by a circle of Bach's friends and admirers. An account of this event was published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1814 •
"In the house of Professor Büsch a large band of musicians was assembled by Eberling to make a thorough study of those symphonies before they were sent away. Reichardt led from his violin to the relief of the anxious composer. One could hear with enchantment the original, bold progression of ideas and the great variety and novelty in the forms and modulations, even ii they were not entirely appreciated. Seldom has a musical composition of higher, bolder and more witty character flowed from the soul of a genius. It would be a real loss for art if these masterpieces were to remain buried in a private collection."
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