Sunday, January 12, 2014

Haydn Adagios, Part 2

About a week ago I was trying to dig into a couple of Haydn adagios to see what was going on. Here is the link to that post. I was stymied by not being able to download the scores. Turns out it was a software glitch on my computer. (A warning to others: the new Mac operating system, Mavericks, still has a couple of bugs in it, so download with caution!)

Anyway, now I have the scores to both the adagios I wanted to look at, so here goes. First, the third movement of the Symphony No. 68 in B flat:

This impresses me more each time I hear it! Let's see what Haydn is doing here. I think we always tend to think of the mood or aesthetics of an adagio cantabile as they were shaped by Beethoven, Schubert and the 19th century Romantics: inevitably melancholic with melting harmonies. Here is an example, the adagio from the Pathétique piano sonata by Beethoven:

Or this, the adagio from the C major String Quintet by Schubert:

But Haydn's adagios are more of an 18th century conception: not necessarily melancholy at all. In fact, his sense of humor is as likely to appear in an adagio movement as anywhere else. Here is the first page of the score to the Haydn adagio:

As was usual with Haydn, this is in the subdominant of E flat. The subdominant is the key of less tension used for slow movements and the codas of sonata movements. The melody begins with a simple arpeggiation of the tonic chord over two measures. Then one measure of dominant where the melody has a quick, falling scale passage ending with repeated F notes (the fifth of the dominant harmony). Then this quick scale fragment is repeated on the tonic and again on the dominant and finally for the last time on the tonic to end the phrase. So far so rather conventional. But here comes the Haydn touch: dovetailing with the end of the phrase the winds (2 oboes, 2 bassoons and 2 horns) come in with the accompaniment figure forte! It is as if the stagehand were suddenly to come out with a soliloquy in Hamlet! The conventional thing would be to have the winds repeat that whole opening phrase with their contrasting tone color. Or to have them echo the end of the phrase. Instead that "echo" is much louder than the phrase. The passage taken to echo is the second violin iteration of the simple accompaniment figure E-flat G E-flat G from the first measure. That was marked piano staccato. The wind interjection (and it is not just the winds, the violas and cellos join in, all in octaves) is forte staccato. It's the opposite of an echo, except we don't have a word for that and if you are listening for the first time with your volume up, it will knock you right on your keister.

The climax of the first section of the movement (with repeat indicated, but not taken in the above performance) is this passage:

Click to enlarge
This is an odd sort of harmonic progression that has the V 4/2 of V of V (C7 with B-flat in the bass) followed by vii° 6/5 of V of V but going directly to V 6/4 instead of to V of V. But that's not what is really odd. It's the dynamics again. Immediately after all this fuss, we have two diminishing echoes: piano and then pianissimo. Then the first section ends with a brief recap of the opening theme. Haydn works within a basically conventional structure but with a little rhythmic ingenuity and by inserting a couple of incongruous dynamic ideas, he creates a unique movement. And notice something that really speaks to his consistency: the second incongruity is a mirror-image of the first, which is what makes both of them work so well, I think.

Apart from all the usual mastery of the compositional craft that Haydn always displays, his real genius here is in making an adagio movement absolutely unique by using dynamics, the louds and softs, in quite unpredictable ways. And in being musically consistent in doing so, if you can absorb that paradoxical thought! What I mean is he has a loud echo of a soft accompaniment and then later on he has a soft echo of a loud climax, which is the inversion. But you weren't expecting it because by this point you had gotten used to the loud echo. See what I mean? This all works very well when you listen to it, but it is amazingly difficult to put into words.

Let's listen to that movement again. Here is a different performance of the whole symphony. For the adagio, just scroll ahead to the 10:15 mark:

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