Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1


Though performed by today’s pianists with increasing regularity, Haydn’s sonatas do not occupy as central a position in the musical canon as those of his younger torchbearers of the classical style, Mozart and Beethoven. This, I would argue, may be attributed to two main factors. First, although he was an accomplished pianist, Haydn, unlike his two successors, was not a virtuoso who wrote music for himself to play on tour. In fact, until his later period, Haydn, like Scarlatti before him, seems to have written most of his sonatas as didactic material for students rather than for the stage. Second, the music has a brusquer, more experimental quality that seems to make it less immediately appealing to both pianists and their audiences. Nevertheless, the Haydn sonatas as a whole undoubtedly deserve to be ranked up there with the foremost compositions for the keyboard. Abounding in innovative rhythms and motifs, they remain as fresh and surprising now as they must have been in the grand old days chez Esterházy. 

This disc is the first volume of a three-disc set containing my performances of a selection of personal favorites among the Haydn sonatas. The pieces are presented in roughly chronological order, beginning with the five early- to middle-period sonatas on this disc.

Sonata in E Major, Hob. XVI/13

This early work, particularly the jaunty, mischievous presto finale, foreshadows the composer’s more mature style. While perhaps not as quintessentially Haydnesque, the other two movements are no less pleasing. The first movement is a militaristic march with pointed dotted rhythms and triplets in the manner of C.P.E. Bach. By contrast, the minuetto has a waltzlike lilt and is effectively juxtaposed against an earnest, pensive minore trio.


Haydn: Sonata in E Major, Hob. XVI/13, I: Moderato

Haydn: Sonata in E Major, Hob. XVI/13, II: Minuet and Trio

Haydn: Sonata in E Major, Hob. XVI/13, III: Presto

Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20

Composed in 1771–1773, this sonata is unquestionably one of Haydn’s masterpieces in the genre, marking the composer’s transition from lighthearted experimentation to the Sturm und Drang that typifies minor-key sonatas from the classical period, including the Mozart A and C minor sonatas. The Haydn C minor sonata surpasses its immediate predecessors and successors in Haydn’s pianistic oeuvre, in part owing to its greater length and structural complexity. Haydn arguably did not write a greater sonata until the early 1790s, when he composed the late C major (Hob. XVI/50) and E-flat major (Hob. XVI/52) sonatas.

Because this is one of the first Haydn sonatas that contains explicit dynamic markings, it has been suggested that it may have been one of the first of the composer’s keyboard pieces intended for performance on the fortepiano rather than the clavichord. Its slurs and staccati are also more clearly delineated. Haydn’s use of slurs not only underscores a more cantabile approach to the instrument but also demonstrates a tighter melodic organization than he had hitherto exhibited.

Another important feature of the first movement is the tempo shift to adagio that occurs a little over halfway through the exposition and recapitulation. The adagio employs the same melodic pattern as the figure in the tempo primo measure preceding it. But Haydn clearly intends the adagio variant to have an improvisatory effect, since it begins in the middle of the measure and does not fit in neatly with the meter. Aptly, the composer indicates this melodic rise and fall in fioritura, analogously to a filigree passage in a Chopin nocturne or Liszt Hungarian rhapsody. In employing such a figuration, Haydn is tacitly calling upon the pianist to play freely, with rubato. After the wistful smorzando at the adagio’s conclusion, accentuated by a tenuto on the ultimate seventh chord, the movement mercurially returns a tempo with mordant dotted rhythms in the treble accompanied by dramatically punctuated chords in the bass. This expressive contrast is perhaps the most salient example of Sturm und Drang in the entire sonata.

In contrast to the lament in the thirds that open the first movement, the second movement is noble and stately from the outset, the marchlike quality emphasized in the three single E-flats that ring out assertively at the debut. However, like the first movement, the second movement also exemplifies both melodic complexity and Sturm and Drang. Melodically, the treble is syncopated against thirds in the bass, illustrating that the two lines are competing for greater prominence (though the treble should probably slightly win out). The Sturm und Drang is deftly highlighted in the D-flat major section of the development that modulates back to the A-flat tonic to conclude. 

Interestingly, the last-movement allegro seems more proportioned than the first two movements, focusing less on extreme dynamic contrasts. With its driving rhythm and sharp left-hand counterpoints, it is quasi-Baroque in character. The apoggiatura that concludes each half is reminiscent of a Scarlatti sonata. Nevertheless, while its contrasts are less explicit, the movement is certainly tempestuous, particularly the hellish leaps and fiery chromatic modulation in the development.

Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20, I: Moderato

Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20, II: Andante con Moto


Haydn: Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI/20, III: Allegro

Sonata in D major, Hob. XVI/33

This sonata should be much better-known. While the first-movement allegro and third-movement minuet are wonderfully ebullient and spiky, the second movement is a chanson triste whose melancholic aspect may only be matched elsewhere in Haydn’s sonatas by the middle movements of the E major and F major sonatas (Hob. XVI/22 and XVI/23, respectively).

Like the first movement of the C minor sonata, the allegro opening movement of this sonata contains a brief tempo shift to adagio. However, here the intent of the shift is not to highlight a contrast between the major and minor modes but to play with the listener’s expectations regarding the arrival of a concluding statement. The dramatic contrast between the circumspect question posed in the adagio and the assertive response to that question in the broken-octave acciaccaturas with which the allegro recommences underscores the movement’s dialogic nature.

The second and third movements of this sonata are often cited as a single movement because the adagio ends with A major arpeggios that never resolve to the tonic and launches into the minuet attaca. Such fluid continuity between sonata movements became more common in the romantic era but was relatively rare in the classical period (although Beethoven began to experiment more and more with this technique as his style progressed).

Haydn: Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI/33, I: Allegro


Haydn: Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI/33, II: Adagio

Haydn: Sonata in D Major, Hob. XVI/33, III: Tempo di Minuetto


Sonata in A-flat major, Hob. XVI/43

This is one of only two sonatas that the composer wrote in the pianistic key of A-flat major (the other being Hob. XVI/46). The mood is generally jovial and upbeat throughout, although there are tinges of sadness as well.

This is particularly true of the first movement, whose right-hand texture contains a mixture of singing lines and Scarlattiesque repeated-note figurations and trills. Despite the pointedness of the repeated notes and the periodically unrelenting left-hand triplets, the movement as a whole lacks aggression. This may be explained partly by the moderato tempo, partly by the depth of Haydn's use of the middle register of the instrument, and partly by the pastoral sweetness of the melodies. The most notable manifestation of the movement’s serenity appears at the conclusions of both the exposition and recapitulation, in which the dynamic level of the triplets fades to a whisper and ultimately leads to two pairs of thirds—the first on the mediant scale degree in the fifth piano octave and the second three octaves below on the tonic, an unexpected harmonic progression that deviates from the more normal V-I relationship. Haydn emphasizes thirds elsewhere in his concluding cadences, such as in the first movements of the C minor sonata (Hob. XVI/20, see above) and the “grasshopper” D major sonata (Hob. XVI/37), but nowhere so restfully and ethereally as this smorzando that concludes the first movement of this A-flat major sonata.

The minuet functions as a pithy interlude bridging the two outer movements. Lasting under three minutes, it might appear, at first glance, to more appropriately belong with the somewhat studenty efforts of Haydn's earliest sonatas. However, closer inspection reveals a subtle minuet with a taut rhythmic design and complex inner voicings contrasted with a melodically tender trio. 

The concluding presto is a fleet and energetic romp, bubbling with Haydnesque optimism. In form, it is a set of four variations on a theme, certainly nothing new for Haydn’s finales; however, the transitions between variations are unique. While Haydn’s sonata variations structurally tend to do little more than vacillate between the minore and majore (e.g., minuetto of D major sonata, Hob. XVI/33; presto of E major sonata, Hob. XVI/31; presto of E minor sonata, Hob. XVI/34), here he ends the first and third variations with a quasi-development leading into the subsequent variation. In the development on variation one (bars 27–56), he begins with an octave-lower (starting on middle C) restatement of the theme, then precedes through several contrapuntal questions and responses before terminating in an unresolved seventh chord, capped with a fermata to heighten the tension. In the development on the third variation (bars 155–182), he modulates through a series of broken-chord sequences, arriving at an E-flat octave and thus emphasizing the tonic-dominant relationship that is the cornerstone of classicism (and is stressed throughout in the sonata's repeated-note motif on three E-flats). The minore (following variation two) is not a mere reworking of the material in the minor mode but has its own development, culminating in the same seventh-chord relationship as the development on variation one, underscoring the parallelism of the silences that, throughout, teasingly precede the returns to the theme. Variation four spans five octaves. Haydn’s characteristic humor is most evident here, especially in the surprising restatement of the theme in the middle-C octave, the leaps of a tenth in the right hand, and the adagio shift that leads into the recurrence of the theme in the treble with three portato E-flats an octave apart. The coda (bars 218–227) is succinct but memorable, commencing with a fragment of the variation-three development but segueing into a sequential pair of scales in triplets (the first time, ironically, that Haydn uses his characteristic triplets in this movement) that finally resolve into the first inversion of the A-flat triad.


Haydn: Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI/43, I: Moderato


Haydn: Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI/43, II: Minuet and Trio

Haydn: Sonata in A-flat Major, Hob. XVI/43, III: Presto

Sonata in C major, Hob. XVI/21

Although this rustic, dancing sonata does not break any new structural ground, each of its movements contains novel rhythmic and pianistic ideas.

The allegro marking in the first movement is probably more an indication of spirit than of speed. Indeed, the unceasing dotted rhythms can be a tour de force for the pianist to sustain for the work's duration and make it nearly impossible to play, metronomically speaking, in more than an andante. By emphasizing the accent on each dotted sixteenth, however, the performer can suitably convey the movement’s bouncy effervescence.

In the second movement, there are shades of the more romantic style that would reach its apex in the works of Beethoven. One might note in particular the thirds, octaves, and rich Alberti basses that culminate each half.

The last-movement presto is a brisk country dance and is notable for its hemiolas at the outset and in its trillo passagework. Analogously to some of Scarlatti's sonatas (L. 96 in D Major comes to mind), the brief development in C minor has an almost Spanish flavor.

Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/21, I: Allegro


 Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/21, II: Adagio


 Haydn: Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI/21, III: Presto


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