Originally published on May 26, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
2009 is the bicentennial year of the death of Joseph Haydn; but, beyond several highly informative pieces by SF Classical Music Examiner Scott Foglesong, there has been relatively little recognition of the occasion in San Francisco. Fortunately, pianist William Wellborn was kind enough to compensate for this neglect with today’s Noontime Concerts™ recital at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, preparing a program consisting of two of Haydn’s piano sonatas. His selections differed considerably. He began with the C minor Hoboken XVI/20 sonata, composed in 1771 during Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period. (Yes, good-natured Haydn had a Sturm und Drang period, which incorporated some fascinating explorations into minor keys until his patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, made it clear, probably around 1775, that it was time to cool it in such matters.) This was followed by Haydn’s last published piano sonata, Hoboken XVI/52 in E-flat major, composed in 1794. Both of these works stand as landmarks in the broader context of music history in some interesting ways.
The C minor sonata may be most interesting for its influence on Johannes Brahms. No, this is not the source of the theme for his 1873 Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn; rather, the minor-key opening of this sonata was reworked into major for the cello solo that opens the third movement of his 1881 second (Opus 83) piano concerto in B-flat major. (Interestingly enough, Brahms restored this theme to its original minor for the second of his Opus 105 songs, “Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer.”) The resemblance is too strong to be either accident or coincidence, particularly in light of Brahms’ explicit 1873 interest in Haydn’s music. Needless to say, Haydn has his own “destiny” for this theme, which Brahms took in entirely different directions (once in major and once in minor).
However, there is another possible connection, which may be even more interesting. This concerns the way in which Haydn chose to end the exposition section in which this theme is introduced, which is with a gesture that has almost no sense of conclusion to it. Sound familiar? This is strikingly similar to the way in which Jean Sibelius ended his Opus 63 fourth symphony in A minor, an ending so disquieting that Michael Tilson Thomas deliberately called attention to it in his introductory remarks during last week’s San Francisco Symphony concerts! Again, this similarity may not be entirely coincidental. The Grove Music Online entry for Sibelius by James Hepokoski and Fabian Dahlström makes reference to his interest in “the motivic severity (though not the counterpoint) of the Austro-Germanic tradition of Haydn and Beethoven” around the end of the nineteenth century; and in many respects the A minor symphony embodies a maturing of that interest in 1911. Thus, in the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we may say that Haydn’s C minor sonata fired a shot that was heard across the end of the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth.
From that point of view, the impact of the E-flat major sonata may have had less temporal distance; but it may be equally significant. In this case we have Haydn working on this sonata at pretty much the same time that Ludwig van Beethoven was working on his three Opus 2 sonatas, which he dedicated to Haydn. When András Schiff began his cycle of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, I speculated that this dedication might have been a somewhat curious blend of the deferential and the defiant. I summarized my position with the following sentence:
It is not that Beethoven is offering an homage but that he seems to be saying, “I see what you were getting at when you did it that way; but what do you think of this way?”
If Haydn had been following Beethoven’s work on these three sonatas, then his own “last word on the matter” may well have conveyed a message of his own back to Beethoven:
Well, if that’s the way you want to compose a sonata, then what do you think of this?
Again, the spirit is one that combines a desire to encourage Beethoven to go in new directions with a somewhat defiant reminder of who is still the master. This may be reading too much into a confrontation of strong personalities, but there is no doubt that Haydn’s final piano sonata left Beethoven with more than adequate food for thought as he progressed with his own approaches to this genre.
All this is to say that Wellborn, in turn, provided his audience with an equally abundant serving of food for thought. However, I should add, as a sort of footnote, that he did so under rather adverse conditions. On the occasion of this particular recital, the venue might have been better named “Our Lady of the Jackhammer.” There has been extensive renovation work on Old Saint Mary’s over the past months; and, for the most part the workers have respected the need for appropriate listening conditions during this one particular hour out of the week. I gather, however, that a new crew had taken over the work and had not (yet?) been informed of the significance of this particular hour.
Beyond the annoyance of the noise, however, one had to be impressed with how Wellborn handled the situation. After finishing the C minor sonata, he remarked that this may have been the first time that an audience had to concentrate as hard as the soloist, then adding, almost as a throw-away, “I should have played Rachmaninoff!” I took the fact that he was able to accept the situation and try to put a good face on it to be a model of his professionalism and an endorsement of his instruction in Piano Pedagogy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I am sure that Haydn had to put up with conditions far more adverse than Prince Esterházy nagging at him to “get over” his Sturm und Drang “kick;” and, while any conservatory may be that peculiar synthesis of ivory tower and monastery that Foglesong recently made it out to be, any piano student will have to put up with any number of adversities upon returning to the real world. Wellborn decided that he had to deal with conditions as they were as best as he could manage, and he encouraged the rest of us to do the same. I can think of no better way to accept that, as they say, the real world is what it is!