The Esterhazy palace in Eisenstadt, where Joseph Haydn spent almost 30 years, could provide a key to the understanding of his music. The façade of this palace is pristinely classical and symmetrical but the rear, overlooking the courtyard, is covered with elaborate ornaments and exotic figurations typical of the late Baroque. This mixture of perfect symmetrical form with asymmetrical (imperfect/human) content is what makes Haydn’s music so appealing to us.
Haydn lived a long and very productive life (the catalogue of his compositions fills 40 pages in the Grove Dictionary of Music). His role in the development of the symphony, string quartet, piano trio and sonata was crucial; he provided a working model for all of these art forms as we know them. Born in 1732 while J.S. Bach was alive, he died in 1809 when Beethoven’s creativity was in full swing. He was a true musical reformer, who took post-baroque music as his point of departure and created a musical style that laid the foundation for the Classical period. Haydn established several basic formal procedures for handling musical material and created the blueprint for the sonata form. Besides formal innovations, he introduced new thematic material that was simple and concise: each thematic unit contained in itself a whole work, like a seed that potentially contains a whole tree. Both Mozart and Beethoven built on these innovations and owed a debt of gratitude to Haydn, which Mozart gladly acknowledged and Beethoven did not.
He was a late bloomer, composing his finest works at an age which neither Mozart nor Schubert ever attained. He had no systematic musical training beyond some random lessons in theory while singing in a choir. The art of composition as such can’t really be taught. All great composers have taught themselves, regardless of their formal musical training or the lack of it, by studying the works of their peers and actually composing; one learns to swim by swimming.
Haydn wanted to please, entertain and amaze his patrons, but most of all, in his words, to “touch the hearts” of his listeners. The position of court composer suited him well. It gave him a sense of security, provided an immediate audience and an opportunity to perfect his craft: “My prince was content with all my works, I received approval, I could, as head of an orchestra, make experiments, observe what created an impression, and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to, cutting away, and running risks. I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to become original”. And that he did.
There are two periods, broadly speaking, in Haydn’s creative life––before the late 1760s and after. Haydn is remembered mostly for the works he composed in the second, mature period of his life. From the late 1760s to the 1770s his compositions went through a fundamental transformation: he found his craft, his originality and an integrated style of expression that was universal and adaptable to any musical idiom. After the 1770s Haydn’s approach to composing certainly evolved, but the basic principles of his musical thinking remained intact. Haydn composed his symphonies, operas and oratorios for the enjoyment of the public and his sonatas primarily for the enjoyment of the performer. Many of his sonatas are custom-made for those to whom they are dedicated, mostly ladies. The eight “mature” piano sonatas included in this recording were written between 1771 and 1790. Haydn’s earlier keyboard works, intended for harpsichord or clavichord, often resemble suites or partitas (collections of movements in a conventional post-baroque manner). His mature sonatas, which after 1780 were composed mostly for fortepiano, are coherent works stylistically and thematically and the relationships between movements are tight and organic. The chronological distance between his earlier and mature sonatas is slight, but the differences in style, form and impact are very tangible. The earlier sonatas were written mostly for amateurs and the later ones for connoisseurs.
Sonata in A flat major, circa 1767 (H.XVI:46) The first movement, Allegro moderato, is in crystalline sonata form with, for Haydn, an unusual amount of padding––a conventional texture of arpeggios in various forms, scales, harmonic and rhythmical sequences to fill up space between thematic episodes. Mozart used such padding more than Haydn and Beethoven transformed it into a powerful expressive tool in its own right. The second movement, Adagio, is thoroughly thematic, one of the finest adagios Haydn ever wrote. It starts with a duo in the left hand. After four bars, the melody descends and joins the left hand, which repeats verbatim the opening phrase––a magical beginning. The voice leading is impeccable and there are plenty of ornamentations (fiorituras) that are vocal (operatic) in nature and should be executed as such. The development section brings an unexpected sense of drama and harmonic tension. The opening motive returns, this time in the right hand on top, repeats itself three times in descending order and resolves into a recapitulation that brings back the second theme, not the first––one of Haydn’s many surprises. There is a fermata on the dominant before the end of the movement and, as always in such cases, a passage before the resolution in tonic is needed. The Finale, Presto, is a rondo (a form favored by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for a final movement). It is fast, virtuosic, humorous and fun to play and listen to––a brilliant showpiece impeccably crafted. The theme of this rondo is a transformation of the main theme of the first movement.
Sonata in E minor circa 1778 (H.XVI:34) The first movement, Presto, rushes forward with playful urgency, interrupted by prolonged pauses (fermatas). The thematic material for the whole movement is derived from the main theme. The development episode presents the opening figure in an alternating E major/A minor tonality, which hardly prepares us for Haydn’s witty shift to C major, after which we wander through several harmonic modulations that finally bring us to the dominant before the home key of E minor. The last four bars bring back the main theme, which suddenly just disappears. The second movement is a lavish adagio with plentiful elaborate ornamentation in the manner of C.P.E. Bach. At the end of the piece an extended cadenza brings the movement to a close on a B major chord, launching directly back into the home key (E minor) for the Finale––a device that Beethoven borrowed for his Waldstein sonata. In the Finale, Molto vivace, one wistful and simple tune keeps repeating itself ceaselessly in minor and major modes. Haydn’s indication Innocente is telling: he is looking back to the age and state of innocence, free of all worries.
Sonata in E flat major circa 1790 H.XVI:49 This sonata is dedicated to Frau von Genzinger, Haydn’s close friend and correspondent. Their relationship was one of the most important personal connections in his life. The first movement, Allegro, is a textbook of sonata form. Everything is in its proper place and the music unfolds effortlessly and naturally. Haydn introduces new material at the beginning of the development episode, which is quite extensive––a practice occasionally followed by Mozart and Beethoven. There is a wonderfully suspended transition to the recapitulation, which introduces a rhythmic formula of four repeated chords on top and four single notes on the bottom. It is hard to overlook the similarity of this formula to the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony, begun in 1804. The second movement is marked Adagio cantabile, which means singing, connecting. The main theme is given several times and each time in a different manner, varying ornamentation and rhythm––a common practice at the time and an art that is almost forgotten nowadays. The influence of Italian opera is apparent in the turbulent and passionate middle episode with its famous hand-crossing––a real operatic scene. This adagio ends with a four bar coda. The Finale is marked Tempo di Menuet (but is not a minuet as such). This understated finale presents a challenge with respect to the tempo in which it should be played and its apparent lack of virtuosity, typical for a final movement. It is simple, rustic and unpretentious.
Sonata in C major circa 1789 (H.XVI:48) This is one of several Haydn sonatas in two movements. The first movement, a set of variations in rondo form with alternating major and minor modes, is a clear parody of the operatic tradition of fiorituras and embellishments, full of the conventional expressive gestures of which composers of the Rococo period were so fond. This movement serves as a perfect introduction (quite an extensive one, especially if all the repeat signs are followed) to the Finale. The Finale, Presto, is a rondo full of energy, laughter and virtuosity. It is a real “finale”, a brilliant showpiece that takes performer and listener (are they not the same?) for a joy-ride.
Sonata in C minor circa 1771 (H.XVI:20) One of the most frequently played of Haydn’s sonatas, this flawless work opens with a sigh motive, establishing a melancholy mood for the whole first movement. An extensive, harmonically adventurous development section goes through eight different keys, with a turbulent episode in B flat (!) minor. There is a wonderful sense of spontaneity and improvisation that is possible only when everything is well thought through and carefully calculated. The tempo indication for the first movement is Moderato. For the second movement it is Andante con moto. The main theme contains four repeated quarter notes (an echo of the ending of the first movement with its repeated octaves in the bass). It proceeds forward unhurriedly, accompanied by a descending sequence of eighths in the left hand. All the thematic material for this sonata is derived from the opening measures of the first movement (the seed that contains a whole tree)––a practice that Beethoven took to heart and perfected. The Finale, Allegro, is the dramatic center of this sonata, a radical departure from the common practice of the time, which was for the finale to serve as a lighthearted conclusion to the work. It has a Beethovenian intensity, urgency and restlessness that are not resolved.
Sonata in G major circa 1780 (H.XVI:39) The first movement, Allegro con brio, is a set of rondo variations, similar to the C major sonata (H.XVI:48), but different in character and texture. It is cheerful, joyful and humorous, as if Haydn is making fun of the standard tools of the art of variations. In the second movement, Adagio, the main theme is irregular; it has five bars instead of the usual four, and phrase lengths continue to be unusually irregular throughout. A conventional vocabulary is spoken here––Alberti bass, arpeggios, scales up and down are plentiful and elaborate. Before the end there are two fermatas separated by eleven bars: it is a written-down cadenza-improvisation, an arch connecting these two fermatas before the final resolution in the tonic. What is unusual here is that Haydn actually wrote down this extended cadenza himself. The Finale is marked Prestissimo––the fastest possible tempo there is and the only such indication in Haydn’s sonatas. It is a real challenge to play this movement really fast on a modern piano because the keys are so much heavier than on the fortepianos that Haydn had at his disposal.
Sonata in D major circa 1778 (H.XVI:33) Haydn evokes a post-baroque style in this sonata. The opening of the first movement is reminiscent of a Scarlatti sonata, the second movement is written in the manner of C.P.E. Bach and the third movement, Tempo di Menuetto, resembles J.C. Bach. Haydn’s musical vocabulary was extensive and fluid and he spoke different musical dialects fluently. However, it is not the idioms or language as such that make or break a composition, but the imagination and ability of the composer to create a new context within any given work, so that it becomes an independent entity in its own right.
Sonata in G minor before 1788, possibly as early as 1771 (H.XVI:44) This melancholy, delicate and lyrical work is in two movements that are connected thematically and in character. The first movement, Moderato, is a real trio sonata. The second movement, Allegretto, is a minuet in rondo form that is completely monothematic. There are alternations of minor and major modes (and moods)––one of Haydn’s favorite procedures, which Schubert also used frequently. The theme of the second movement, an expressive imploring gesture, is a modification of the theme from the first movement.
The 12 Variations in E flat major (H.XVII:3) were written before 1774 for harpsichord. As the theme Haydn used the minuet from his string quartet Op.9, No.2 (H.III:20). Mozart loved this tune and its harmonic sequence and used it in a slightly modified form and C time as the main theme of his piano sonata in E flat major (K.282). These variations are written in a conventional manner, using two clearly recognizable modes of variation: vocal (operatic) and instrumental. All repeat signs are observed in this recording and, in accordance with tradition, the musical material is presented differently the second time.