Vienna in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was the home of the ruling Hapsburgs, and the attendant systems of financial patronage and commercial wealth that developed around the seat of power cultivated a musical sophistication that would make the city the musical capital of Europe. In this environment, the musician was not exclusively a performer, but was expected to act as a composer and a teacher – in fact, performance itself was largely a private affair; events staged in the homes of the wealthy and privileged. Most of the 60 or so keyboard sonatas that Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote were composed as favors for women of this class: his students and patrons.
The Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI:20, published in 1780 but likely composed nearly a decade earlier, was dedicated to Katharina and Marianna von Auenbrugger. Although amateurs, the sisters must have been formidable musicians. We can gauge Haydn’s respect for their talent in a letter written by the composer to his publisher. The sisters’ approval, wrote Haydn, “is of the utmost importance to me since their manner of playing and their genuine understanding of the art of music equals that of the greatest masters.”
The C-minor Sonata marks a technical and stylistic turning point in Haydn’s musical progression. Technically, in that it is the first of his piano scores to feature stark and frequent alternations of dynamics, the sometimes violent contrast of loud and soft, indicating that the intended instrument was not the harpsichord (incapable of dynamic variation), but instead the rapidly emerging fortepiano, the precursor of our modern concert piano. And stylistically, this Sonata is a defining statement of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang or ‘Storm and Stress’ period – an embrace of a darker and more dramatic musical idiom in opposition to the prevailing ornamental lightness of the previous generation.
We hear this burgeoning expressiveness in the tense and halting exclamations of the opening movement of the Sonata where no passage in the major is allowed to persist for very long without crashing against an improvisatorial minor-key outburst. Following a lyrical second movement, the Sonata rushes to a bleak conclusion, suggesting anything but triumph. Haydn himself seems to have recognized the unconventionality of this sonata, calling it “difficult.” To us it is a prescient anticipation of what would come from Beethoven in a similarly darkened frame of mind.