Time Travel, in Classical Style, to a Whole New Universe

Our November concert offers important works by each of the pillars of Viennese Classical Style, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. As we know, they actually knew one another and gained both instruction and inspiration from each other’s work; less, perhaps, Mozart learning from Beethoven. This program presents all three composers at about the same time their lives and works would be discussed in Music Appreciation classes throughout our town. (You may see in this an undisguised appeal to the young!)

There are more than a few chronological anomalies that enter this remarkable three-way relationship and their music. It would be simple enough to claim successive influence if all we knew were their respective dates of birth: 1732, 1756, 1770. But we also know that Haydn, although born twenty-four years before Mozart, knew him first as a child, outlived him as a celebrated adult, and continued to compose to great acclaim for another eighteen years. Beethoven, who came of age at the height of Mozart’s powers, lived to witness his death and the changes in Haydn’s music after the loss.

The three works on our concert first appeared over a twenty-year period: Haydn’s Piano Trio in E major in 1797, six years after Mozart’s death; Mozart’s String Quintet in C major in 1787, ten years before Haydn’s Trio was composed; and the original version of Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto in 1807, two years before Haydn’s death. And yet, hearing all these pieces in concert order in the same sitting leaves this listener with the impression of an eternal dialogue between and among them over how best to employ the harmonic, melodic, and formal fashion of their time and of times before.

In more than a few places it is easy to wonder if one is hearing a gesture, motif, phrase, or character employed in exactly the same way in a work heard earlier in the evening. Let alone the fact that these pieces often refer back to earlier works by each of these composers and others. In this way these pieces not only speak to each other, they both echo and answer each other in interesting ways.

There are far too many examples to choose from, so I will try to present the ones I found most striking.

The Haydn trio opens with one of the oddest effects one is likely to hear on modern instruments: pizzicato strings accompaniment to a sustained melody in the keyboard which, in this context, is a better conveyor of melody than plucked strings. If the keyboard part were played on harpsichord or cembalo there is even greater sense of the overall shared ‘lute-stop’ plucked texture.

Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Movement 1, opening to Measure 6

Please remember this texture! Why? Because we might be reminded of it at the close of the last movement of the Beethoven concerto! much later in the evening.

Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, Movement 3, Measures 418 to 426

In the Haydn again, once the strings take up the bow, the first thing we hear is an emphatic declamatory ascending arpeggio played by the violin.

Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Movement 1, opening to Measure 11

Perhaps this listener could be forgiven a sense of déjà vu on hearing the opening of the Mozart quintet (1789)

Mozart String Quintet in C major, K. 515, Movement 1, opening

The opening of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33, No. 3 in C major (“The Bird”) published c.1782 is said to be the inspiration for the opening of the Mozart quintet.

Haydn String Quartet in C major, Op. 33, No. 3, Movement 1, opening

Both works have melodic turns in the violin parts and prominent ascending C major cello arpeggios in a dialogue of the outer parts over an eighth accompaniment. Within the Mozart quintet the dialogue starts in the cello and is answered in the first violin, the opposite of Haydn’s quartet. Between the two composers there is clearly an affectionate exchange.

The slow movement of the Haydn is in E minor and explores a most unusual unison string texture. While it may be unusual in terms of Classical style, it is not uncommon in Baroque music ground bass writing. The chromatic twists and turns of the unison are reminiscent of the famous bass solo in Handel’s Messiah: “The People That Walked in Darkness”.


Although the character of the E minor Andante con moto movement of the Beethoven concerto is louder and bolder, the use of the unison string texture, and the inclusion of dotted rhythms suggest that this movement is derived from the same Baroque source, i.e., divisions upon a ground bass.


Finally, in both the Haydn trio and the Mozart quintet each composer makes use of a common closing motivic gesture. In Haydn’s Trio it is a passing wave, in Mozart’s quintet it is part of the subject of the last movement and the focus of much its development.

Haydn Piano Trio in E major, Movement 1, ending

Mozart String Quintet in C major, K. 515, Movement 4, opening

With that firmly in mind the legendary solo piano opening to the Beethoven concerto might easily evoke the end of one world and the beginning of another!


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