The simplicity of Haydn’s C major sonata, Hob. XVI:48

A while ago I discussed the qualities and quirks of an early, short, and not too significant C major sonata by Haydn. The C major Haydn sonata I discuss this time is a formidable and masterful work. There are two important sonatas Haydn wrote in this key, a late one, written in London (Hob. XVI:50), and a slightly earlier, two-movement one, written in Vienna (Hob. XVI:48), which is the subject of this entry. Its two movements, Andante con espressione and Presto, although in the same key, are two contrasting statements. One movement is long, stately, and decorous; the other is short, cunning, and jaunty. What struck me, both when listening to it, and when playing it, is the sense of rightness that one feels as the second movement begins following the pause between the two movements. One doesn’t feel the need for a movement in a contrasting key, as contrast is in the very nature of the work. Yet, different as the movements are from each other, they still hang together tightly, and the subtle and simple reason for that is what I explore here. 

With regard to the earlier C major sonata, I mentioned how Haydn “violates” our sense of equilibrium by dividing phrases in uneven ways, creating an “aural illusion.” Our ears are used to, and therefore expect, phrases evenly divided—most commonly 4+4. Hence, a deviation from that “knocks us off balance”. In the earlier sonata, Haydn used this concept in quite a basic way to create rhythmic interest. In the two-movement C major sonata, this concept is employed in the most spectacular way to drive drama and tension throughout the whole work. 

The first phrase opens with a rhetorically powerful gesture—two rising sixths in two bars. The next two bars are an embellished variation on the first two. This is how Haydn constructs the first part of a phrase—the question. The answer is expected to be, correspondingly, four bars long. Now were we to jump from bar 4 to bar 7, we would get an eight-bar phrase that would make perfect musical sense, and it wouldn’t be such bad music either. But bars 5-6, which Haydn inserts in the middle, are a true stroke of originality and genius. Before answering the question posed in the first four bars, Haydn questions the question itself (answering a third-inversion dominant with a second-inversion tonic) in bar 5, and dramatically prepares the answer in bar 6 with an unexpected rapid chromatic passage that creates further tension before the question is finally answered in the last two bars. 

What might sound, when described in words, like a rigmarole, is in fact ingenuity at its simplest and most brilliant. By means of a mere two bars, Haydn has completely wrested the sense of stability from us at the outset of the work, preparing us for many further twists and turns. 

Many such dramatic instances occur, especially in the minor sections of the movement, where we hear successions of five-bar phrases (even more of a violation!) in which Haydn exploits the whole dynamic range of the keyboard in stark and sometimes extreme ways. The sense of imbalance stays throughout the movement, even at the last cadence, when we get a six-bar phrase. Not as provocative as what came before, but not quite standard either. 

The second movement, naturally, could not be more different from the first. The humorous and gently jagged character is something we have not yet heard in the work, but somehow, the sense of continuity is still there. Amazingly, it is the same small detail that fueled the tension in the first movement that does it likewise in the Presto movement. As per the character and tempo marking, the movement is in 2/4 time, hence making for a greater number of shorter bars. The first phrase is 12 bars long, meaning that there are four bars which throw us off balance. Just like in the first movement, they can be disposed of and leave an intact phrase of music, but their presence is at the heart of the movement’s cunning nature. Haydn starts off with a four-bar phrase which, unlike the beginning of the opening movement, does not end with a question. And that is precisely why Haydn does add a little question in the dominant in bars 5-6. Being already “familiar with the trick,” we probably expect yet another phrase of 4+2 at this point, but Haydn, being one step ahead of us, surprises us once more by adding the “auxiliary” two bars before we expect it (bars 9-10 instead of 11-12) as an interruption after the first two bars of the corresponding phrase, giving us a phrase of 2+2+2. Once again, even though describing this simple musical phenomenon might sound dreary, it is in fact the driving force behind the movement’s excitement and humorousness. When we least expect it, we get these little two-bar “interjections,” even in the C minor section, which has perhaps the sonata’s most earnest moment, when we get movement towards E-flat major (C minor’s relative major) in lyrical and beseeching character. 

Haydn always amazes me in the ways he can do so much with so little, and this sonata is a prime example of that. With this one simple tool at his disposal, Haydn creates endless possibilities of drama and excitement, leaving us enthralled for the short but intense duration of this work. 

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