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Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is well-known as a pioneer of the string quartet. What is less recognized is the pivotal role he played in cultivating the piano trio. A survey of Haydn’s trios traces the development of the genre from what is essentially the baroque trio sonata, in which the cello doubles the left hand of the keyboard part, to the classical trio, in which each instrument achieves a new degree of independence.
The C-major Trio, Hob. XV: 27, comes from the classical style’s heyday. Haydn probably started the work, which was one of his final trios, during his second visit to London in 1795, and he most likely completed it after returning home to Vienna the following year. The work was the first in a set of three that Haydn published under a French title that translates as “Sonatas for the Pianoforte with Accompaniment of Violin and Violoncello.” Haydn dedicated the set to Therese Bartolozzi, an accomplished British pianist whom the composer had met in London. The C-major Trio’s virtuosic piano writing testifies to her skill at the keyboard. The work also lives up to its original title in that the string parts were composed with skilled amateurs, rather than professionals, in mind.
The C-major Trio’s first movement is in sonata form. It opens with a fanfare-like figure that begins the exposition. The first theme is lyrical in comparison with the vigorous second theme. The development section begins in the minor mode; after Haydn revisits the fanfare, he treats the first theme to some rigorous counterpoint. The fanfare returns in the Trio’s home key, signaling the recapitulation and close of the movement.
The simple opening of the andante evinces an elegant, restrained quality that reminds us that Haydn composed these trios for private performance in an upper-class London household. This opening alternates with stormier episodes, but Haydn maintains a careful balance between the two moods, such balance being one of the hallmarks of the classical style.
The finale, a delightful rondo, is high spirits from start to finish, with vigorous writing for all three instruments, especially the piano. The trio is one of Haydn’s most accomplished in the genre, and it’s no surprise that London loved his works, especially when they were as extrovert and charming as this one.
John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA and has annotated programs for the Hollywood Bowl, the Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.