Piano Sonatas & Variations
Joseph Haydn

Piano Sonatas & Variations

Fabrizio Chiovetta

CD 1409 - 7619931140926

Information GreatBrittain Germany

The world's first prince of music
Size matters – just not always in the ways we expect. For a long time it certainly didn’t do Joseph Haydn much good. When a composer writes over a hundred symphonies, over sixty piano sonatas and literally thousands of other works – trios, quartets, duos, songs, concertos, operas, you name it – it’s just too vast to grasp. This vastness was a major reason why most of Haydn’s music remained unpublished and unplayed until the mid-20th century. We tend to think that quantity somehow precludes quality; Haydn in fact proves that it does not. All the same, his pupil Beethoven was far more sensible in writing just 32 piano sonatas and nine symphonies, all memorably distinct.

The sheer volume of Haydn’s oeuvre was a result of his having spent most of his career as an artisan working to order. It was his job to deliver music to the Princes of Esterhazy just as their carpenters and smithies produced chairs or horseshoes. But in the same decade as the French Revolution, a seismic shift took place in the status of the composer that was initiated in part by Haydn himself: the former employee of aristocrats now became an entrepreneurial artist writing for the emergent bourgeoisie. Ultimately, Haydn became so famous that princes vied to employ him because it enhanced their status. The servant had at last become a Master.

Haydn and his oeuvre were also situated on several other fracture lines of music history, and we can observe them through the works recorded here. There is the shift from the Rococo of the 1760s via the Sturm und Drang and the Classical to an incipient Beethovenian Romanticism in the 1790s; then there is the switch from the harpsichord, on which his early works were conceived, to the fortepiano of the later sonatas and variations. And last but not least, the very establishment of the instrumental sonata as a central genre of Western music is something we also owe in large part to Haydn.

The large-scale Sonata in A-flat major Hob XVI:46 was written in about 1768-9, thus towards the end of Haydn’s first decade of service to the Esterházys. The first movement, by turns charming and brilliant, shares with several other works of the time (such as the Mercury Symphony No. 43) a tendency to get stuck on the tonic; the last movement similarly begins with repeated cadences in the home key, though the music possesses such breath-taking energy that we barely notice. It is the slow movement of this sonata that is the real gem here. Couched unusually in D-flat major, its slithery counterpoint is at times reminiscent of the texture of a string quartet, while yet remaining fully idiomatic for the keyboard.

The Sonata in c minor Hob XVI:20 was begun in 1771 but revised before its publication in 1780 in a set of six dedicated to the Auernbrugger sisters (two gifted pianists whose father had been Antonio Salieri’s best man). This sonata reflects Haydn’s switch from the harpsichord to the piano as his instrument of choice, for it was conceived at the former, but upon its publication a decade later was given dynamic markings that only really make sense when it is performed on the latter. This work is regarded as belonging to Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” period – referring to a contemporary movement in literature that promoted extremes of emotion and subjectivity, and which is generally applied to Haydn’s music from around 1770 that displays a heightened degree of emotional agitation. The offbeat octaves in the bass certainly help to convey a sense of drama at the outset, and this is later intensified by cascading octave runs and an increased chromaticism. (Incidentally, both melody and accompaniment of the opening seem to prefigure the first of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances. Did Brahms have Haydn’s work in mind when he was composing, or did perhaps Haydn – who lived and worked in Hungary, after all – refer here to an earlier variant of the same tune?). The walking bass in the second movement initially seems a throwback to Bach’s time. But then its single line becomes a chain of thirds traversing two octaves in a steady descent, the right hand all the while trilling and syncopating as if unconcerned at what the left hand is doing. The final movement is dominated by rapid figurations and by sequences that again have a Baroque feel to them – until shortly before the end, where the music from the slow movement suddenly returns with its stepwise descending thirds and right-hand syncopations.

Haydn was only able to publish these “Auernbrugger sonatas” because he had just renegotiated his contract with the Esterházys. For two decades he had been compelled to write only for his Prince, and while certain of his works had still found their way into print, it was only with his new contract that he gained the right to sell his wares as he wished. He proved an excellent businessman, as devoid of scruples as the most cut-throat of his publishers, even plagiarising others when it served his ends (had he lived today, he might well have abandoned music for the money markets, howling with the wolves of Wall Street). In mitigation we must remember that copyright was inexistent, and the demand for his works became so great that there was soon a steady stream of pirate editions of his music from which he earned nothing. The last sonata on this CD, in e minor Hob XVI:34 (probably ca 1780-82) was in fact first published without Haydn’s knowledge or consent, in London in 1783. The agitated opening movement does not really have a “theme” at all, the rising arpeggio in the bass being its most striking, recurrent feature. The second movement is notable for its filigree runs and seems to have left its mark on the slow movement of Mozart’s final piano sonata, K 576, of 1789. The last movement here is in double variation form – a favourite of Haydn’s, in which a minor theme alternates with a major theme (the two often being related, as here) and in which each is then varied in turn.

Haydn was acknowledged in his day as a master of variation form (the composer Abbé Vogler wrote in 1793 of “the matchless Haydn ... who showed us ... how we should write variations”). Besides assorted variation movements in his sonatas, Haydn also wrote half a dozen independent sets for keyboard. The Variations in E- flat Major Hob XVII:3 date from the early 1770s and are based on a theme that Haydn took from the minuet of his String Quartet op. 9 No. 2. At first sight, these charming variations seem quite straightforward: either the theme or its harmonisation is recognisable throughout, while the variations themselves run the typical gamut of triplet figurations, scalic ornamentation and syncopation. But there is subtlety in Haydn even when he seems guileless – see, for example, variations 3 and 7, where he plays with the listener’s expectations, bringing back the opening of the work as if restating the theme for a final time, only to veer off in a different direction altogether.

The Variations in f minor, Hob XVII:6, are rightly regarded as one of Haydn’s finest works in any genre. Like the last movement of the e-minor sonata it is in double variation form, alternating between the minor and the major. The theme itself is complex, employing variation already within it and featuring a treble and bass that keep swapping their roles. Haydn had originally planned to use this work as a sonata movement and had ended it in the major, but then changed his mind and expanded it with a coda in the minor that to us today uncannily foreshadows Beethoven. Haydn wrote these variations in Vienna in 1793, in between his two visits to London. Along with the three piano sonatas written in the latter city the following year, these variations form Haydn’s last contribution to the piano repertoire.

Haydn’s piano oeuvre thus spans some three decades, taking us almost up to the publication (in 1795) of the first mature piano sonatas of his great successor, Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn had begun his career as a lackey to princes, but ended it as the world’s first prince of music; it was thus fitting that those first sonatas by Beethoven, which took up where Haydn left off, would be dedicated to the old master himself.
Chris Walton 


  • 1
    Andante & Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII:6
  • 2
    Sonata in A-Flat Major, Hob. XVI:46
    I. Allegro moderato
  • 3
    Sonata in A-Flat Major, Hob. XVI:46
    II. Adagio (cadenza: Paul Badura-Skoda)
  • 4
    Sonata in A-Flat Major, Hob. XVI:46
    III. Finale. Presto
  • 5
    Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20
    I. Moderato
  • 6
    Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20
    II. Andante con moto
  • 7
    Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20
    III. Finale. Allegro
  • 8
    Sonata in E Minor, Hob. XVI:34
    I. Presto
  • 9
    Sonata in E Minor, Hob. XVI:34
    II. Adagio
  • 10
    Sonata in E Minor, Hob. XVI:34
    III. Vivace molto, innocentemente
  • 11
    Variations in E-Flat Major, Hob. XVII:3