Tuesday, August 17, 2021


I've made sport for years of complaining that the much-revered Papa Haydn rarely seems to move me in the way his reputation would suggest. But I'd rather not argue that point right now, especially since I've recently become obsessed by a truly great bit of music that's been in Haydn...er, um, in hidin'...or, well, yes, in Haydn's vast catalogue of sonata forms, slow movements, minuets (so many minuets!), prestos, etc. As it happens, I first heard (or noticed, anyway) this Haydn in a live concert, which is particularly meaningful after more than a year of virtually no live performance experiences.

Our three string-player children have been attending the magical Greenwood Summer Music Camp for a decade now and, after a sad summer of silence in 2020, the campers are back playing weekly chamber music marathons this summer. There are plenty of repertoire favorites that feature regularly in these 3-4 hour concerts, including lots of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Shostakovich and, yes, Haydn. And I'll admit that I generally enjoy movements from Haydn's 60+ string quartets as there is often much charm and lively interplay to be found. In fact, one of my favorite Greenwood memories involves my oldest daughter playing first violin in this remarkably beautiful set of variations from an early quartet. So I am aware that Haydn can take it to the next level.

The truth is that as much as I love these very long concerts, there is an endurance aspect to listening, and sometimes it's easy to lose focus. I don't generally get excited when Haydn is up at the plate, but about halfway through the first half of the third weekend concert in July, a group came out to perform the Adagio sostenuto second movement from Op. 76, No.1. I know the six Op. 76 quartets more by reputation (they are much admired!) than repeated listening, though I did play cello in the more famous Op. 76, No. 3 "Emperor" Quartet many moons ago.

But the teenagers playing this Adagio sostenuto managed to stop time (in a good way) from the simple, opening bars. I'm sometimes embarrassed that I don't have that many "love at first listen" moments, but in this case a disarmingly simple structure made the logic easy to follow while Haydn kept delivering moments of unexpected transcendence. Although it's probably not fair to compare everything to Beethoven (who learned much from Haydn after all), I couldn't help but think of the visionary impact found in slow movements from Beethoven's legendary late period. (Or even mid-period.)

As often happens with late Beethoven, the basic building block here is a simple, hymn-like melody. The melody moves mostly by step in a fairly limited range, with the emotional punch delivered by the sonority and harmonies. In this opening section, we hear the 8-bar melody twice, each time organized into conventional periods of 4-bar open-ended phrase followed by 4-bar finishing phrase. Most of the harmonies are fairly conventional, including the use of an expressive but by-the-book German sixth chord in the final cadence of this section (not shown here), but I remember being affected by an unexpected chord in the first cadence, and I think that moment is part of what captured my attention and focused my vision on Haydn's vision. 

Below you can see the first presentation of the 8-bar theme (its paired phrases create what's known as a "period"). The chord shown in red strikes me every time as unexpected, but in a way that's warm and comforting rather than jarring. The sound those four notes create is a minor seventh chord on the dominant (5th scale degree), which is not a typical dominant function. Minor Seventh Chords (which I love) occur often enough in Haydn Era Classical Style, but usually built on the 2nd scale degree. The usage here is more unusual. BORING PART: The most logical way to analyze this moment functionally is to hear the 1st violin and viola D and F as accented passing tones (meaning they are not part of the prevailing harmony) which resolve into a secondary vii 6/5 diminished chord of the F Major IV chord that follows in m.7. The real chord in terms of function is what we hear on the last note of m.6 immediately after the red notes, with 2nd violin and cello notes still sustaining. IMPORTANT PART: The sounds these four "red" notes make together in this context seem lifted from another world.

This is admittedly quite a subtle detail which could easily be explained away, and it's odd to feel that this sound which lasts for less than a second should make such a difference, but that's just the way it is sometimes. (For better or worse, this kind of love for subtle detail is part of classical music culture.) Haydn at this stage of his career had incredible command of his craft, and an unusual little turn of phrase like this can magically unlock a higher plane.

So, in terms of the simple, logical structure I mentioned, it can pretty easily be laid out as follows. Note that the other major building block for this movement is what I've elaborately labeled "expansive, flowing dialogue between violin and cello." In each of these sections, there is much more forward motion and each climaxes in some way before returning to the serenity of the original thematic mood. The first and fourth climaxes are quite similar, ending with the violin ascending almost impossibly high. The third climax is the most dramatic (thus most like a sonata form Development section), with a wandering violin diminishing to pianissimo followed by subito forte and several significant silences. 
  • THEME (including my favorite chord)
    • 8 bars
  • THEME REPEATS (octave higher and varied, with German Sixth at cadence) 
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 17 bars
  • THEME (now in G and even simpler than before)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 9 bars
  • THEME (just like the theme repetition above except an octave lower)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 16 bars
  • THEME (just like first presentation, with my favorite chord again at last)
    • 7 bars (cadence elides into next section)
    • 12 bars
  • CODA (more expansive flowing dialogue, with violin, cello, and viola!)
    • 5 bars
Maybe I've made it look more complex than it is. To the listener, it's basically an alternation between the serene hymn flow and the more restless dialogue flow. There are elements of what we'd call Sonata Form (in terms of the tonal plan) and Rondo Form (with the sense of return provided by each recurrence of the theme), but what matters is the beautiful balancing and merging of these contrasting flows. The dialogue sections also feature some imaginative textures in which the first violin is delicately syncopated against the other three instruments.

Naturally, I didn't hear all of these details in such terms on that wonderful first hearing. But I was curious about that chord that had seemed surprising, so I went looking for the score a few days later. At first I was excited to see that IMSLP has a piano version (see p.7 here) of the whole quartet arranged by the English composer William Crotch. Imagine my horror on realizing that Crotch LEFT OUT THE B-FLAT THAT MAKES IT ALL HAPPEN. (There's also a wrong note - denoted by X - in the alto of the next measure. Nice job, William! It turns out the arrangement is riddled with errors and general sloppiness.) 

So maybe this proves my point about how otherworldly that chord is - William Crotch couldn't handle it. For reference, here's a quick demo of 1) Crotch's simplification, 2) another typical way Haydn might have harmonized this with standard secondary dominants, 3) harmonized with the accented passing notes removed, 4) Haydn's perfect version, and 5) overindulging by sustaining the harmony for too long so as to appreciate its sound.

Naturally, this experience led me down an unexpected path. Even after playing a bit of Crotch's poorly made piano reduction, I discovered how much I loved the feeling of this music under my hands. In fact, I realized that almost the entire movement fits comfortably on the keys and could quite plausibly be conceived for the piano. Only small adjustments are needed to make it work, and who knows? Maybe Haydn first worked this out as a slow movement for a piano sonata. Some of the passages certainly have a different effect on the piano compared to the quartet version, but I couldn't resist making my own and I find it very gratifying to play. I firmly believe it would stand as one of the outstanding slow movements from all of Haydn's piano sonatas.

In true MMmusing fashion, I have so far put much more effort into making a scrolling score animation which syncs both the quartet score and my new piano version than I have into...you know...practicing or creating good conditions for recording (like getting the piano tuned or using a bench that doesn't squeak). So what I have for now is more a proof-of-concept recording than anything polished, but it'll have to do as school starts soon and I need to put this aside. Still, I wanted to get it into the world, and hope to return with a better recording when opportunity allows. I haven't finished all the tedious work that needs to be done to make the reduction looks its best, but if you're interested in getting a copy of the less elegant version I have now, drop me a line.

Here's where things stand so far, enough to demonstrate how it works on piano:

And here's one of my favorite recordings I've found in the boring string quartet dressing. (The score may be viewed starting on p. 11 here.)