Slow moments with SW: Haydn – sublime repose

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy, 1791

“As a matter of fact, genius grows younger, not older: as a mind of Haydn’s calibre reaches stages of maturity denied to mortal mortals, it sheds inherited prejudice after prejudice, the so-called heritage of the past; it sheds whatever is aged in its civilization, in order to allow its own genius, increasingly confident that it will make itself clear in spite of renouncing time-honoured means of communication, to express itself as freely as the new substance urging for expression may demand.”

So wrote Hans Keller in a programme note on Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76 no. 1 in G for a concert given as part of the EBU International String Quartet series (the brainchild of Keller) given by the Chilingirian Quartet in the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall on 29 Sept 1975. Who can possibly disagree? Certainly not me.

In the same note Keller writes: “Haydn was one of the three greatest adagio composers in the entire history of Austro-German symphonism, the other two being, needless to add, Beethoven and Bruckner”. But – may I shyly suggest that Brahms might be added to the list.

However, I’m not going to start with the quartets, but instead, with the piano sonatas – in my view a still unjustly neglected and richly rewarding element of Haydn’s output. Here are three examples:

Portrait of Haydn during one of his visits to London (artist unknown) together with a breast pin belonging to the composer. Both from the Marion Scott Archive at Cambridge University Library.

First, the Adagio cantabile from the Piano Sonata in E flat Hob: XVI: 49. The outer movements of the sonata were composed in 1789 and this deeply reflective B flat major movement with its contrasting, turbulent middle section (which includes passages for crossed hands) in the minor key, a year later. For me, it represents another wonderful example of the sublime repose or ‘spiritual stillness’ Keller refers to in his note on Op. 9 No. 4 for the same EBU concert by the Chilingirian Quartet. Each time the main theme returns, it does so in a slightly more elaborated repetition which yet maintains the stillness intact. The movement begins at 7’ 57” into this recording by Alfred Brendel, but why not listen to it all anyway?

My second example is the Piano Sonata in A flat hob XVI: 46, composed between 1767 and 1768, whose Adagio in (the then pretty extreme key) D flat presents the theme in the left hand, but in the treble register to which the right hand adds its counterpoint when the theme is repeated. The movement then unfolds with increasing chromaticism, yet never losing its lyrical warmth, sense of direction and underlying contemplative nature.

Finally, the earlier C minor sonata Hob XVI: 20, published by Artaria in 1780 was, incidentally, the first to which he gave the title ‘Sonata’.  Here is Richard Wigmore writing on the astonishing Andante con moto in A flat which:

“…unfolds over an expressive running bass line, is another Haydn slow movement with a distinct Baroque flavour. But with its textural complexity and wide harmonic reach it inhabits a different world from the earlier sonatas. Constant syncopations give the music a restless, yearning edge, rising to passion in the mounting sequences that sweep the music into the recapitulation.”

There is also an almost late-Beethoven moment when the two hands separate almost to the extremes of the keyboard. The Andante begins at about 6′ 17″ into the whole.

OK, now we can move on to the String Quartets. But heavens, where to start with such riches to choose from? Well, how about with what Hans Keller regards not only as the first of Haydn’s “Great” Quartets but also “the first great string quartet in the history of music”? Op. 9 no. 4, composed in about 1769, whose B flat major Adagio cantabile Keller describes (in his note on the work  for the EBU concert already mentioned) as “Haydn’s first profound exploration in the field of emotional, or rather spiritual stillness”. Indeed, it seems that Haydn himself might have agreed as in later life he is said to have felt that his string quartet output should be regarded as beginning with Op. 9.

My second selection is the first of the Op. 20 set composed in 1772. Here is Richard Wigmore from his excellent notes to accompany the recording by the London Haydn Quartet issued by Hyperion:

“The jewel of the quartet, some might even say of the entire Op 20 set, is the Affettuoso e sostenuto (‘Tender and sustained’), in the dusky key of A flat: music of self-communing inwardness that unfolds throughout in a hushed, rich, four-part chorale texture, with no discernible ‘theme’ and minimal articulation. There is something strangely elusive about this movement, with its weird interlocking and crossing of parts and quietly audacious dissonances. Mozart would remember it in the Andante, likewise in A flat, of his third ‘Haydn’ quartet, K428.”

The “dusky” key of A flat – what a marvellous description (for me, A flat is a mellow yellow ochre).

And here is Hans Keller again from that same EBU concert in Liverpool by the Chilingirian Quartet: “The structure is Haydn at his most characteristic: a compressed sonata which is even more economical thematically than the first movement: ‘mono-motivic’ would indeed by the only possible description.”

Thematic catalogue of Haydn’s string quartets provided by Seiber in their 1815 edition. MRS.1.313 (Marion Scott Collection). Cambridge University Library

And finally, perhaps my all-time favourite from the string quartets which I couldn’t manage without on a desert island (or indeed this lockdown, which amounts to the same thing). The Adagio from the “Sunrise” Quartet, Op. 76 No. 4. The quartet was composed in 1797 as part of the set dedicated to Count Joseph Georg von Erdődy. Here is H. C. Robbins Landon in his notes for the recording made for Deutsche Grammophon by the Amadeus Quartet in 1964:

“A sense of distanced mourning haunts the Adagio, one of Haydn’s slowest. Monumental in the way in expresses “grief from without”, it uses a telescoped sonata form sheared of all inessentials. The very end is imbued with a seemingly boundless sadness; the sextuplets, first in the second violin, then in the cello, sound like the last ghostly stirring of dead autumn leaves. Here is a slow movement that, like “Chaos” in The Creation (being drafted just at this time), gave music a new depth, a new dimension.”

Again, I find myself wishing I’d been a cellist…here is that Amadeus recording: the movement begins at about 8′ 20″ in:

Next up in this series? Well, that would be telling…in the meantime, stay safe and well.


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5 Responses to Slow moments with SW: Haydn – sublime repose

  1. Evan Rothstein says:

    Ah, splendid work Susi, glad to see that you are keeping Keller’s voice active across the ether…
    Lovely music, whether spiritual or emotional (I’m sure that’s an important distinction… to be pondered further once I finish marking all of these 4th year portfolios)…
    Take care,



    Thank you for this inspiring start to Friday! May I add to your excellent list the slow movementsof Op 77 (nos. 1 and 2), both of which I love to distraction. The slow movement of Op 76 no. 5 was played at HK’s cremation – ‘mesto’ (sad) and in major! – to overwhelming effect. Keep listening and sharing! Atb – Christopher


    • sw508 says:

      You may indeed add to the list Christopher, thank you! Narrowing the choice in the first place was agonising, but needs must.


      • sw508 says:

        Thank you so much for this Richard. Fascinating and what wonderful memories to have. SW


  3. Pingback: Music for the mind | MusiCB3 Blog

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