Haydn’s subtly orchestral Adagio

Haydn’s sonata in G major, Hob. XVI:6, published as a “Partita,” is unique among the dozens he wrote, as the only one in four movements. Its scope and ambition are a lot greater than those of many early sonatas, one of which I discussed a while ago. It was published in 1766, at the same time when Haydn wrote some of his most poignant and impassioned music. Many of the works dating from this time are a far cry from the good-natured and mellow Haydn of the late period, which also happens to be the Haydn we most widely know. But before works such as the late symphonies and the delightful Creation came, Haydn wrote a great many works of tumultuous and often tormented music, such as the C minor keyboard sonata, the La Passione, Farewell, and Mourning symphonies, as well as what is perhaps the crowning masterpiece of that period, the Stabat Mater

However, one part of Haydn’s output seemed to have somewhat evaded this tide of fervor and anguish—his keyboard output. Most of the keyboard sonatas dating from that period are a lot closer to the jovial Haydn of the later period that we think of when we hear the composer’s name (in character, that is: compositionally, there is an enormous gulf between the earlier and the later sonatas). The sonata in question is no exception, but its third movement, an Adagio, is. 

Haydn’s use of the keyboard in this movement is strikingly simple—most of the movement has a  texture of melody+accompaniment. Yet, the way he uses the register with these simple means gives the Adagio an almost orchestral scope. The sense of “void” that one feels between the two hands is one we feel in many of Haydn’s great orchestral works from that period, like the aforementioned Stabat Mater, which opens with raw and almost harsh-sounding open octaves. The Adagio never sounds that harsh, and does not have open octaves, but still, that void is felt, and gives us a sense of melancholy. This movement could have been a credible aria in a liturgical work of this period, as attested to by the elaborate melodic lines and the long prepared fermatas. 

Such a movement is rare in Haydn’s keyboard sonata output. Usually, we hear allusions to his chamber works and to the more “festive” orchestral writing of his symphonies. Mozart was a lot likelier to allude to the vocal style in his keyboard works. I do not know why, but Haydn, unlike Mozart, seemed to keep his vocal style somewhat separate from his instrumental style. 

But is there nevertheless a pianistic aspect to this movement, or is pianism entirely absent? I think that there is such an aspect to the Adagio, and we see it when the right hand slides into the background with long trills, and the left hand takes the main lines. The dominant figure in the line that the left hand plays, perhaps a response to what was heard before, is repeated notes. This figure can be heard abundantly in Scarlatti, a composer whose keyboard writing is often echoed by Haydn. Scarlatti’s style is defined by frequent repeated notes, something I call his “toccata-ness.” We hear these repeated notes in the Adagio, too, but instead of being an example of dazzling virtuosity, they express the most genuine and profound sorrow. These possible allusions to “true” keyboard writing are indeed brief, as when the right hand answers with a variation on the repeated note motif, and it already sounds wholly different, perhaps like two oboes answering the long trill held by the singer of the aria. Thus, we have just a fleeting glimpse of keyboard writing in the manner of Haydn’s other keyboard works, and the answer of the right hand, marks an overlap between the pianistic and orchestral aspects of the Adagio.

The aspect of repetition in this Adagio doesn’t stop with single notes, however. Haydn extrapolates this idea and uses it with longer motifs, sometimes of half a bar (significant in a movement of only 25 bars.) This gives the music an obsessive feeling, with worry and grief underlined rather than merely stated. (We hear such repetitions at times also in Scarlatti’s sonatas in minor keys.) At times, it also gives these motifs a chance to be heard with different accompanying harmonies, something that bestows a different meaning to every repetition of the motif. While one repetition may imply distress, the next one can imply a glimmer of hope. Haydn’s genius lies therein—saying so much with so little. 

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