Haydn’s late-in-life conception of the sonata in comparison to Beethoven

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn, portrait by Thomas Hardy

I’ve chosen Haydn’s piano sonata in E-flat major, Hob.XVI:52, as emblematic for Haydn’s late take on the piano sonata form, vicarious for the three so-called „English sonatas“, in a recording by Mehmet Okonsar.

Upfront: As a similarity to Beethoven sonatas of 1809. both Haydn and Beethoven are not exactly fond of the traditional role and expression of the piano sonatas. Both are playful and to some extent bold, even cheeky and clearly not for those sonata listeners who are seeking for a secure and resting vantage point, especially not emotionally. Both composers – Haydn even more than Beethoven – take us on an adventerous journey, in particular by means of unexpected key changes.

Compared in terms of structure, Beethoven steers away almost completely from the symphonic three-movement structure „fast-slow-fast“ in his opus of 1809: Opus 77 is a one-movement fantasy, Opus 78 comprises only two movements (slow-fast, fast), and Opus 81 has a trilogy-like structure: slow – leisurely – vivacious, depicting the timeless topics farewell, absence and return. Haydn, in contrast wide keeps the familiar three-movement structure of fast-slow-fast.

Looking at Beethoven opus 78, what is striking in the key first movement, vicarious also for Opus 81a to some degree in so far as every theme, every topic, every mood takes its righteous place. Beethoven has endowed each of it with an obvious raison d’être, widely in respectful neighbourhood to others. Contrasting topics and moods coexist without disturbing each other. As different as they may be – pensive, joyful, upbeat, pessimistic – surprisingly, they do not conflict with each other whenever they encounter. Richness and variety without conflict is the hallmark feature of those of Beethoven sonata, even in the case of Fantasy Opus 77, appearing perfectly improvised.

Beethoven of 1809 uses something which had not been common for sontats until then: a long introduction and a unusual coda in the first movement of Opus 78. Haydn did not do this.

Worth mentioning with respect to juxtaposing Beethoven sonatas with Haydn’s late sonata is a use of humour. Even though in the very short second movement of Opus 78, Beethoven shows humour –  for Beethoven’s sonata admittedly not that frequent – , opera of that time did not distinguish itself by wit.


Beethoven, circa 1811, by Carl Schloesser

In contrast, Haydn’s late „English sonatas“ are in in both respects -conflictlessness and a forgoing of humor- a striking difference. Already Haydn’s Hob.XVI:50 is – predominantly in its first movements – a cornucopia of wit. Also, in particular in the second half of Haydn’s Hob.XVI:52, witty cheekiness is found all over the place: Seriousness and gravity repeatedly tries to establish itself and to take center stage, but is repeatedly mockingly and teasingly interrupted and shunt by mirth and  sassy, buoyant sequences of sounds: Gravity gets not foot in the door, no matter often is tries to assert itself. Joyful and upbeat tunes sneeringly imitate the serious tones and shunt them. Those youthful forces are chasing each other like frolicking siblings. in some parts, the “old” and “grumpy” voice almost sulkily heckles from the background, and it is immediately put in its place by joyful voices.

Hob.XVI:50 does completely without an introduction, and opens with a short and festive motif  – a baroque motif, which is repeated again several time over the course of the movements, but is very quickly, after being echoes, replaced by something else. Haydn raises an expectation, but dispels it immediately, again leaving you confused about what is to come. Apart from Beethoven forgoing Baroque motive completely, Haydn – using the Baroque motive only for a cheeky confusion, does not establish anything of substance in the beginning.

In the slow movement of Hob.XVI:52, the Adagio. Haydn shows a relaxed mirth and an optimistic serenity, which is it is always expressed neither decrepit nor weak, but with force and energy. The strokes demand and express physical strength. Right at the beginning, Haydn’s slow movement takes up a key which came up in the first movement as suprising hovering points between the dominant and the tonic and which  was unconcluded, but in the second movmentwe feel that we are arriving where we were travelling to in the first movement. The second movement is an arrival, whereas in Beethoven the slow movements appear as a journey of its own beetween two fast movements. Furthermore, Haydn’s slow movement is imbued by optimism and strength, whereas the slow movements of Beethoven 1809 sonatas are mean to be, before anything else, beautiful.

Listening to Haydn Hob.XVI:52, the expectations of a rather festive Baroque piece is soon dispersed (to some relief), and one feels challenged by the chase of variations, and, predominantly in the second half the movements, which an amusement about the lovely cheekiness of joyful voices towards grumpiness.

It seems as Haydn, in his late sonatas, does away with the sonata form as the messenger of the gravity of life, and establishes them as message of a different kind: Don’t take life and yourself too seriously, you are going to embarrass yourself – and the upbeat forces of youth are going to push you lovingly into the background. They are going to put you in your place, and even more, you are going to miss much if you stay on the grave and serious side.

Haydn’s  Hob.XVI:52 seems to say with a wink: Life is full of cheerful surprises, and nothing is as serious as it purports to be. I feel the aged Haydn becomes astonishingly youthful in his last sonata – juvenile but wise at the same time, whereas Beethoven of 1809 seem to say: Life is full of surprises, and it is grave.


IMSLP(http://imslp.org/wiki/Piano_Sonata_No.52_(Haydn,_Joseph)), or directly via

1st movement: http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP01732-09-HaydnSonatas-E-flat_Maj_HBK_XVI-52_01-Allegro.mp3

2nd movement: http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP01732-10-HaydnSonatas-E-flat_Maj_HBK_XVI-52_02-Adagio.mp3

3rd movement: http://imslp.org/wiki/File:PMLP01732-11-HaydnSonatas-E-flat_Maj_HBK_XVI-52_03-Presto.mp3

1 comment
  1. I like your essay a lot- I did this essay myself last year- and I too noted Haydn’s wit and got a sense of youthfulness in the music. You write very elegantly. I’m trying to learn German- I can only dream of being as good in German as you are in English. …(I have signed up to a German course wth Coursera, date to be confirmed!)

    Maybe you would like to see mine:


    (It is after the one on John Keats)

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