A Walk With Haydn

Haydn is better known for his symphonies and string quartets than his piano music. But I recently drew out my second-hand edition of his complete piano sonatas, because they’re fun to play.

Part of the fun is that- compared to a composer like Beethoven – these pieces tend toward the lighter side. The textures often consist of only two or three voices. That doesn’t mean they’re simple, of course, but however untidily I play them, there are few passages where I think ‘how will I get that under my fingers’. The lower levels of technical stress makes it easier to concentrate on the phrasing and articulation.

Nonetheless they have their difficulties. I started with no. 14 in D major. I’m not the best sight-reader, and I found myself immediately stumbling over the rhythms. I saw Allegro Moderato and the quavers in the left-hand accompaniment, and started off too fast to process the string of dotted semi-quavers in the right hand that quickly followed. I had to make it less Allegro, more Moderato.

But this opening stumble is actually a good example of what makes Haydn enjoyable to play. It’s a bit like being taken on a walk: Haydn guides you through a landscape of short forms, and even if he’s not intending to test your strength and stamina, he knows that your enjoyment depends on keeping you guessing. He takes you a little way, then pauses. Then on a bit more, in an answering phrase. But you always have to watch your step for what’s coming next.

In bar 8 I was caught out again. I unconsciously assumed the descending left-hand figure would replicate the lively dotted rhythm of the equivalent phrase in bar 4. But no: this second time it’s straight down. It’s a tiny touch of restraint, as if Haydn doesn’t want to get carried away, but you quickly discover that it’s also a stepping-stone into the smooth and flowing rhythm of the next 8 bars. What surprises you is also guiding you.

In the same way a piano teacher will ring in pencil a detail their student overlooks, my faltering mistakes and incorrect assumptions begin to accumulate in my understanding of the score, as I gradually learn how to play the piece.

This is a long way from listening to a polished performance, with its easy authority that ‘this is how it goes’. By exploring this landscape under your fingers, the score is gradually embellished with the faint eraser marks of what else the music could have been. By playing this music you discover something about Haydn’s mind, but also your own.

This content is available exclusively to members of this creator's Patreon at $1 or more.