No great composer wrote as much music as did Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). The quality of his music as as great as its amount. So vast is his output that it’s hard to count them. He is famed as the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. He wrote 68 of the former and 106 of the latter. Two of his symphonies are not numbered. I won’t try to list the opera, masses, concertos, and sonatas by the Austrian master.

Mozart once boasted that no composer was his equal, but then qualified his declaration by admitting that Haydn might be as good. Beethoven was his student, but thought he wasn’t strict enough. The last six years of his life were marked by increasing fragility. Haydn’s last public appearance was 1808 at a performance of The Creation given in his honor. He was brought to the hall in a chair. Beethoven knelt by his side and kissed his hand. Salieri conducted. Hummel was also in attendance.

My subject today is three of the master’s piano trios. There are 45 of them. The mature ones, from #18 on, are among the greatest works written for piano by any composer. Charles Rosen in his book The Classical Style thought them the equal of anything in the piano literature.

The trios are usually in three movements. The piano is the dominant instrument. As the pianos of Haydn’s era were not the powerhouses they developed into in the 19th century, the composer likely thought that the instrument needed the support of two strings to give body to his compositions. While they might not have the visibility of his symphonies, choral works, and quartets they are worth exploring because of their beauty and invention. With any music just a click away you can explore them on your own. Here are three.

The most famous of these trios is #39, called The Gypsy because of its third movement marked ‘Rondo a l’Ongarese: Presto’. It is the precursor of the Hungarian/Gypsy style music so popular in the 19th century – Liszt, Brahms, etc. Haydn was exposed to folk music as a child. He came to be even more familiar with it during the 30 years he worked for the  Esterházy family which had a palatial estate in Hungary.  The trios first two movements are just as good as the famous final one.

Haydn Piano Trio #39
00:00 – 05:50
05:55 – 10:56
11:01 – 14:05

Piano Trio # 41 is one of the few of these trios in just two movements. The first movement is an andante in A-B-A-C-A-Coda form. The second is marked ‘Allegro (ben moderato)’. The trio sometimes nicknamed Jacob’s Ladder in reference to a violinist who supposedly had difficulty with high notes. Could be true.

Haydn Piano Trio #41
00:00 – 09:37
09:38 – 13:05

The Piano Trio #44 is a late work dating to 1797. It is in the usual three movements. The following descriptive paragraph is taken from the Wikipedia article on the trio:
” The trio opens with an ascending theme presented, untypically, by the violin and cello in pizzicato; the effect is reminiscent of a harp. The piano answers with an ornamented legato version of the same theme, before all three instruments burst into a lively bridge section leading toward the dominant. The opening theme is reproduced in the development section in a rich, full-bodied version in A-flat major. The second movement, set in the tonic minor, strongly evokes the passacaglia genre. Its creeping bass line is first introduced by all three instruments in unison, before the piano introduces a winding, ornamental melody over the top of it; later, the melody and bass are used in invertible counterpoint. This movement has numerous features that link it with the second movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto. The lively triple-time finale introduces a theme in short phrases, with a playfulness both in its rhythms and in its irregular length. The violin takes over in the minor-mode middle section, which includes an extraordinary modulation to E-flat minor, while the return of the opening material is accompanied by changes in register, and the action is temporarily suspended by several diminished seventh chords before the music comes to a close.”

It’s a wonderful piece. Haydn is here at the peak of his power. The 90s marked the composition of some of his greatest symphonies, string quartets, and choral music. The second movement is particularly noteworthy. It not only is reminiscent of Bach, but also anticipates the late works of Beethoven in its quiet profundity. Only a master could have produced it.

Haydn Piano Trio #44
00:00 – 06:50
06:56 – 12:21
12:25 – 17:36

I’ve just touched the surface of Haydn’s piano trios. His work in this form is unsurpassed and worth investing some time to sample a lot of it.