Haydn’s two-page sonata in C major: Not masterful but remarkable

Few things can be more thrilling than going through a volume of Haydn sonatas. You open a random page and find a masterpiece that you can’t imagine not having known before. Although Haydn has distinct characteristics that appear in many of his works, each sonata has something unique to offer. This week, however, I want to look at a Haydn sonata that isn’t a masterpiece. (I realize that some of this is going to be a bit technical, but I believe that even if you are not a trained musician, you will be safe if you just read right “through” the technicalities, taking them at face value as it were, without trying to evaluate them critically.)

The sonata in C major, Hob. XVI:7, was published in 1766 as a partita or divertimento. It can’t be accused of being too long, as it occupies all of two pages in Dover’s edition of the complete sonatas. Its first movement, at 23 bars, is the shortest opening movement of a sonata I can think of (please correct me if I’m wrong). I’ll try to do two things here: pinpoint what is missing in this sonata that we find in Haydn’s masterworks, and at the same time see where some of these cherished qualities can still be found in it. 

The first movement is in sonata form, although some common (but not necessary) components of sonata form are missing. Contrary to what is widely believed, sonata form is defined by key areas and not by first and second subjects (indeed many great works of Haydn are mono-thematic), so when Schubert pushed the boundaries of sonata form, he did so by having three key areas in the exposition instead of two, which shows the importance of key areas as opposed to contrasting themes. The only instance of a sonata form movement that I can think of where both themes are in the same key is the first movement of Ravel’s A minor piano trio, written in 1914 (again, let me know if I overlooked other cases). Back to Haydn, the transition between the tonic and dominant key areas is effectively omitted. But is it, actually? Where does the second key area begin? The beginning of bar 5 is in the tonic and the beginning of the next bar is in the dominant, and the second beat of bar 5 introduces a theme that is continued in bar 6. So is there really no transition? This question was pithily answered by the renowned theorist Carl Schachter, who described what is going on in bar 5 as “I called Mary wasn’t home,” making the second beat of bar 5 Mary. The beauty of this effect is that we only realize midway that we are in the second key area (or the second theme). Otherwise, it would have sounded more like “I called Mary, who wasn’t home.” Can we use this concept to explain the lack of a proper development (beginning in bar 11)? Not quite, because the “I called” is missing. But given that before the recapitulation in bar 17, all we have in the preceding six bars is movement towards the tonic and nothing else, the “development” really consists only of the G major chord in bar 11, ergo, not much develops. I’d call it a perfunctory development. Doesn’t sound too interesting… so wherein lies the excitement of this movement? I would say in the unusual length of the phrases. Whether we realize it or not, we are conditioned to expect phrases of four, eight, or sixteen bars, which much like poetic meter represent solidity and symmetry. Most other phrase lengths, even phrases of eight bars that divide 5+3 rather than 4+4, “violate” an equilibrium we otherwise wouldn’t even notice. That is how Haydn ended up with the unusual numbers of 23 bars for the whole movement and 10 for the exposition. He was the absolute master of this violation. Jumping ahead 23 years to 1789, we see in another C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48, how Haydn creates suspense by starting the sonata with a phrase of ten bars rather than eight. After four bars of stability, Haydn calls that very stability into question in two bars that my late teacher, Hamish Milne, would point out as “a stroke of genius.” Even if what follows is another four-bar unit, the equilibrium has already been broken and we are left in a state of suspense. The seed for this stroke of genius was already planted in the much lesser Hob. XVI:7. Haydn could have constructed a standard eight-bar phrase with the material of the exposition, but he didn’t. Instead, he kept us in a state of slight suspense for eleven bars, where our sense of rhythmic stability has been gently violated. 

If in the first movement Haydn mildly distorts rhythm and phrasing to create tension and drama, in the second movement, a menuet and trio, he does the exact opposite. After withholding the sense of equilibrium in the first movement, Haydn gives it back to us in the second, which consists of four-bar phrases. What I particularly like about this movement is how varied the writing for the keyboard is, even when using the most basic textures. We don’t need the editor’s silly parenthesized markings of mezzo-forte and forte to see how Haydn creates an orchestral effect with the most limited means. What he recreates is the contrast between tutti and soli, a device he later uses to produce some of the most astonishing moments of suspense and release. To create a sense of voidness, Haydn often experimented with the space between registers, leaving nothing between the melody and the bass line. My favorite examples of this come from his later period, in the second movement of the Drumroll symphony and the third movement of the Op. 77/2 quartet. The void creates a sense of immense expectation and tension—when are we going to hear the inner lines? The satisfaction when we finally get to hear the inner voices is, in the best possible sense of the word, overwhelming. Not in this sonata, though. Here, we simply get a clear notion of the whole orchestra joining in bar 5, even if Haydn adds only one more voice. (Fittingly, the change from soli to tutti happens every four bars). This effect is repeated and magnified in the next eight bars, as we get four bars in the high register (perhaps a foretelling of the use of winds in the Military symphony?) followed by a tutti that employs for the first time a full C major chord in the left hand, letting us rejoice in the sense of arrival. 

In some of Haydn’s greatest works, many of which are quartets and symphonies, the middle section of the menuet is the most revealing moment, where Haydn subtly makes references to the other movements. In the Rider quartet, the trio of the menuet masterfully bridges the first movement with the last, and in the Op. 76/6 quartet, the alternativo exposes the very core of the whole quartet’s musical material in the barest form. These are of course two works on a much larger scale than the Hob. XVI:7 sonata, but nevertheless, the trio of this little sonata still asserts its structural significance. In bar 26, Haydn breaks away from the preceding lyrical thirds with two familiar-sounding ascending scales. Why familiar? Because we have heard them twice, first in the development of the first movement (bars 11 and 13) and then in a slightly altered form in the tutti section of the menuet (bars 5-6 and 13-14). It is as if the composer doesn’t let us settle too deep into the spirit of the trio, lest we forget what came before. This gesture, on as small a scale as it is, attests to Haydn’s instinctive and wholesome sense of proportion, drama, and form. 

With a first movement whose dramatic effects derive from its irregular phrase structure and a second movement that is the exact opposite, what is left for the finale? Haydn finds a simple answer: combine the clarity of the menuet with the aberrance of the first movement. The 3/8 time signature, generally one of rapid music, lends itself to hyper-measures, where every bar functions as one beat of a larger bar. This allows Haydn to fluidly switch between measures of different time signatures without the ambiguity of the “I called Mary wasn’t home” effect. The dancelike finale is very much in the spirit of Scarlatti, who died less than a decade before the sonata was written. I have no knowledge of what Haydn’s awareness of Scarlatti was, but echoes of Scarlatti can be heard in many of Haydn’s keyboard sonatas, and as it happens, quite a few of Scarlatti’s sonatas are in 3/8 time with hyper-measures. Haydn begins with hyper-measures of three, which allows him later to make phrases of four bars into “rhythmic dissonances,” as he does in bars 22-25. This continues into the development section, where our expectation of three-bar phrases is swiftly undercut after the second bar, and Haydn inserts four-bar phrases instead (bars 26-38). Just like eight bars divided into five and three disrupt our notion of continuity, so do six bars divided into two and four, instead of three and three. Is Haydn, in this relatively eventful development, compensating for a lack of a development in the first movement? That’s up to the performer and the listeners to decide. 

This sonata could not have been written by a second-rate composer, and yet it isn’t first-rate Haydn. Why, then? The components for a great piece of music are there—balance, variety, drama, lyricism and sensitivity to form. But if we think of our favorite works of Haydn, whichever those are, we are always in awe of how Haydn “walked the extra mile.” He may be breaking conventions, making us marvel at how he came up with something quite simple yet radical, or taking us on a journey to our emotional extremes, in the anguish and terror of the slow movement of the Op. 20/2 quartet and of the Stabat Mater.  Otherwise, he may engage in what I call his detailed studies of uninhibited mirth and joyousness, of which there are so many that I don’t even know which ones to list (although the last movement of the symphony no. 104 and the Dona Nobis Pacem from the Harmoniemesse instantly come to mind). Haydn, unlike, say, Mendelssohn, is a composer we love because of his extremes. We love him because he can be more elated than the most elated, more dejected than the most dejected, and when it comes to certain “quintessentially classical” works of his, better mannered than the best mannered. Even when it comes to politeness, Haydn found a way to exceed. That “extra mile” is missing in Hob. XVI:7. But here is the crux of the matter: despite their emboldened emotional qualities, the masterpieces mentioned above are not built solely on these attributes we most associate with Haydn. Schumann stressed the importance of the overarching structure (the thematic scheme of the work), craftsmanship (development of ideas and polyphonic writing), and aesthetics as key components of a great musical work. This constitutes the groundwork on which composers conceived great works. Although these concepts are universal, the individual traits of every great composer shine through these basic ideas. Haydn’s groundwork is illuminated in its full elegance and beauty in Hob. XVI:7, and that’s why I love it. 

Haydn

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