I’ve always enjoyed making lists ranking my favorites in various categories. In my early years of classical listening, it was a nice way to review what I had encountered and see if my view of certain pieces had changed. But when making those lists, I never had to justify the reasons for my choices. So today I’m starting a series of posts where I will do just that. Specifically, I’m going to traverse the history of the piano sonata from classical to contemporary and offer my top five picks from each period. It will be quite an adventure.
The ranking from the classical period could have easily been a top 10, and surely this will be the most controversial category. I’m open to feedback.
#5: Haydn – Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52
There are myriad charms to be found in this piece. The Allegro first movement has an odd but delightful play between grand, royal gestures and quieter sentimental moments. The last theme of the exposition, a strange invention of staccato dotted rhythms, is quite an earworm. I like Haydn’s choices in the development, with the sentimental material becoming more melancholy and pensive.
The Adagio continues the noble mood of the first movement, beginning with similar arpeggiated chords in dotted rhythms. This is no ordinary slow movement; the landscape is punctuated with unexpected harmonies, daring silences, and some stern passages of unison in the lower register.
Haydn’s finales rarely disappoint. He knew how to create a mood of fun, even mischief. Listen to how he teases the opening of this Presto. First an innocent little theme, imbued with forward drive. Then a strange pause and a restatement of the theme in minor mode. The stage has been set for all sorts of hijinks. Then after the next pause, the music explodes! Despite my familiarity with this piece, I still delight in all the unexpected turns in this movement, the constant invention and the sixteenth-note runs that whiz past. In its madcap abandon, it looks ahead to some of Beethoven’s more mad-genius concoctions.
Where to find it: