Program Notes: Haydn’s Piano Trio

by Jack Bryce

Carleton College Professor Emeritus Board Member

Listen below to a recording by the Emerald Piano Trio if you'd like to get familiar with the work before Sunday's concert.

Program Notes: Haydn’s Piano Trio in G major Hob. XV, No. 25

Franz Josef Haydn (Rohrau, 1732 – Vienna, 1809), the son of a very musical wheelwright and a cook, began his musical life as a choirboy when he went to live with his father’s relative Johann Mathias Franck at the age of five or six, in nearby Hainburg where there were much better opportunities to develop his musical talents.  An early biographer quotes him as saying he would be grateful to Franck “even in the grave, that he taught me so much, though in the process I received more beatings than food.”  At seven or eight he was recruited as a choirboy at the Stephansdom, the Cathedral in Vienna: but when his voice broke at age 18, he was out on his own.  He had a very difficult life at first, but worked hard, met a lot of useful people, and came up in the world through playing and composing.  He was married in 1760 to Maria Keller; he would have preferred her younger sister Therese, but she her parents made her become a nun.  It was not a happy marriage, and there were frequent infidelities on both sides.

In 1761 Haydn became Vice-Kapellmeister for Prince Paul Anton of the Esterházy family, the richest among Hungarian nobles, and was promoted to Kapellmeister in 1766; upon Paul Anton’s death his brother Nicolaus succeeded him in 1772.  The court orchestra gradually grew from 13 to 24 players by the 1780’s, and included notable virtuosi, which accounts for difficult solo passages in Haydn’s symphonies.  He began to compose large scale vocal music, both sacred and secular, and finally operas, which became the main focus of the prince’s musical establishment.  Haydn took up writing string quartets as well, perhaps for Viennese patrons; and always he wrote more symphonies.

In 1779 Haydn got a new contract from Prince Nicolaus, allowing him to publish his music; he began with the firm Artaria.  In the 1780’s Haydn began to write piano trios, and while he was in London (from 1791 to 1795) published today’s sonata, with its famous Gypsy Rondo.  It is among three London piano trios (numbers 38-40, Hoboken XV 24-26) dedicated to Mrs. Rebecca Schroeter.  Now who could this be?

Born in 1751 to Robert and Elizabeth Scott, Rebecca was left an annuity when her father died in 1771, and £15,000 to follow when she married.  Her family was quite put out that in 1775 she married her music teacher, a German immigrant, composer and pianist Johann Samuel Schroeter, and incidentally a highly admired friend of Haydn’s.  Greatly important in the development of English piano music, he died young in 1788; but she lived on in comfort.  She wrote Haydn asking for a music lesson when he first came to London, and this led to a new affair for him, a bit awkward as he was still in the process of breaking up with the Italian singer Luigia Polzelli; but Luigia had not come with him to London.  Twenty-two ardent letters have survived from her to Haydn, in copies he made in one of his London notebooks.  A sample: “My Dear: I was extremely sorry to part with you so suddenly last Night, our conversation was particularly interesting and I had a thousand things to say to you, my heart WAS and is full of TENDERNESS for you, but no language can express HALF the LOVE and AFFECTION I feel for you, you are DEARER to me EVERY DAY of my life…”  When he returned to London in 1794, he lived about ten minutes’ walk from Rebecca, and it is a fair guess they continued their relationship.  Not only did Haydn dedicate three piano trios to her; she witnessed an important contract in 1796 regarding English editions of his music; and in 1797 she subscribed to the publishing of the Creation.

This afternoon’s piano trio is Haydn’s best known in the genre.  The string parts, especially in the ’cello, are not so independent of the piano as they later became in trios; but the writing is extremely imaginative and attractive.  The first movement features alternating major and minor sections, with the final statement of the main theme elaborated splendidly in the piano.  The middle movement features absolutely ravishing melodic writing for the violin; and the finale is in a style developed from the Gypsy music which Haydn doubtless heard local musicians play at Esterházy.  Incorporating well known Gypsy music, especially verbunkos, the dances used in military recruitment, was a first for Haydn in this most exciting finale.


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