Haydn the magician

Pianist Roman Rabinovich tells IAM how the music of Haydn continues to surprise – even 200 years after his death. 

Over the last two years I have been immersed in the music of Joseph Haydn, performing and recording his piano sonatas. I believe him to be one of the most underestimated of the great composers – his wit, emotional depth and compositional invention are a continual source of inspiration to me.

As it happens, Haydn did not conceive these sonatas to be performed as a single unit (and Haydn would probably think me crazy to do so!) but playing them as a cycle has given me and audiences the chance to discover the diversity and range of these magnificent works.

The general public – and professional musicians for that matter – are often familiar with Haydn’s strings quartets and the symphonies, but somehow his keyboard music is overshadowed by that of Mozart and Beethoven. The piano sonatas are real gems and, in a way, more experimental than Mozart’s sonatas.

One of the most striking qualities of Haydn’s music is his sense of surprise. Each sonata explores a different idea – I’m in awe of his abundance of ideas. You never know what to expect around the corner and he is always ahead of you. He’s like a magician who sets up expectations, only to completely defy them once you start following him. It really keeps you on your toes.

Roman Rabinovich © Boguś Beszłej
Roman Rabinovich © Boguś Beszłej

Haydn is notorious for unusual key signatures – where else in music of the classical period could you find a piece in B major or E flat minor? He embraced operatic traditions in instrumental music, utilising appropriate keys for symbolism and drama. Each tonality expresses a particular sentiment.

Haydn was not a great virtuoso pianist like Mozart or Beethoven, but played the instrument very well. In fact, he learned to play all the instruments as a child. At the Esterházy court he had to compose, lead the orchestra from the violin, perform piano concertos, teach, tune and look after the instruments…and even resolve fights between musicians!

His ability to surprise and delight the audience on one hand and his mastery of the compositional conventions and expectations on the other, were equally esteemed. Of his experience at court Haydn wrote:

“I could, as head of an orchestra, make experiments, observe what enhanced an effect and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to, cutting away, and running risks. I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to be original.”

What attracts me to Haydn is his unpretentiousness. Given a talent, he struggled and worked hard to get to the top. First, he became a good composer. Improving bit by bit, he became a great one. And eventually, he became the greatest composer in the world.

Haydn composed piano sonatas throughout his entire creative life (spanning about 45 years), starting with the charming sonatinas from his early days in Vienna, through the highly dramatic Sturm und Drang sonatas and ending with the three grand and bravura sonatas of the London period. These works were played in aristocratic residences and perhaps occasionally in a concert-like environment. As Haydn’s style evolved, so too did piano making. By the time Beethoven came to the scene, pianos were developing as quickly as computers are now. The range was growing, both in pitch and volume terms.

Haydn composed his piano music for amateurs and connoisseurs. This distinction is important. Sonatas for professional musicians are works in which the player was expected to embellish and improvise in the proper style, to fill in the blanks, so to speak. Amateurs on the other hand did not know how to compose or add ornaments.

As the middle class was growing and people could afford musical instruments at home, so the number of amateur musicians grew. Haydn, always a pragmatist, recognised the potential new market for his works and adapted a more simplified style of notation so everyone could read his compositions without compromise. He was well aware of his audience, and a favourable reception was important to him. Some of these sonatas were written for and dedicated to individual women and contain delicate personal messages. For example, the second movement of Sonata in E flat major is an intimate letter to his friend Maria Anna von Genzinger.

Haydn’s music fell out of fashion amidst the indulgent romantic tendencies of the 19th century, but at the beginning of the last century it regained interest with Prokofiev and Stravinsky in their exploration of neoclassicism. I believe he is more relevant than ever today. Haydn offers clarity of thought and expression that is crucial in our complicated and confusing times.

Haydn Piano Sonatas Volume 1 by Roman Rabinovich is out now on First Hand Records, with Volume 2 due later this year. His next UK appearance is a recital of music by Ligeti, Bach and Schubert at Wigmore Hall on Friday 25 January.