In 1795, Haydn, at a young 63, was completing the second and last of two triumphant trips to London (the first was four years earlier). During this last visit to the English capital, he became acquainted with Therese Jansen, a brilliant pianist for whom he wrote three sonatas – the final three of his prodigious output in the form. The sonatas were composed not just for an English performer, but for one of the large English pianos of the day. These instruments, with their extended keyboards which gave the piano ‘extra’ notes, proved so much to Haydn’s liking that he took one back to Vienna with him.
InHaydn’s time piano sonatas abounded: in the very year of the present sonata, Beethoven composed his first three piano Sonatas (Op. 2), which he dedicated to Haydn; Mozart had written his 18th and last sonata in 1789; Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) produced 35 sonatas; for Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), estimates range from 150 to 200 sonatas; and Muzio Clementi (1752-1832), wrote 35 of an eventual output which amounted to nearly double that number. It is not surprising that the two greatest of these sonata-writing composers, Mozart and C.P.E. Bach, eventually had the most influence upon Haydn, just as it was inevitable that his own first so-called sonatas, from the period of about 1750 to 1767, were closely related to the Baroque suite.
In tonight’s Sonata, Haydn balances with enormous skill the graces of Mozart with the tensions of C.P.E. Bach, and through it all is very much his own (great) man. No slave to formalism, Haydn in the first movement turns his back on the precept of thematic contrast he had come to adopt through the influence of Mozart, and builds an amazing structure essentially on the lean, surpassingly witty theme that opens the piece. With what dazzling inventiveness the composer manipulates this idea, what endless variety he derives from the spare but malleable combination of its notes. Enriched, embellished, and developed, passage follows passage with an air of spontaneity that belies the sophisticated art that controls and directs every element. Of these elements, harmonic color is primary, particularly in a development section that begins in minor, finds it way to A-flat major, then to A-minor before returning home to C-major. Mention should be made also of the keyboard writing, whose brilliance and flair speak highly of the abilities of the London Miss Jansen.
The slow movement, a piece Haydn already had in his portfolio and which he adjusted for its new sonata home, is an expressive, ornate Adagio. Here the composer attains eloquence through seemingly improvisatory means, but the fantasy illusion is yet another measure of Haydn’s sleight-of-hand. The latter facility is fully active in a last movement that dances with Haydn’s characteristic verve and humor — the wit underscored by a rude cadence and a pregnant pause at the end of the first sentence. The movement is something of a miniature, but, filled as it is with Haydnesque surprises and harmonic elegances, fully formed and satisfying.
Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.