Haydn’s Piano Variations

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (also known as Joseph Haydn or Papa Haydn) is a staple of the Classical era. Throughout his lifetime (1732-1809), he was highly regarded as a composer; in fact, he is known as “Father of the Symphony” and “Father of the String Quartet” because he was instrumental (pun definitely intended) in shaping the symphony and string quartet. Mozart regarded Haydn as a friend and mentor, and Haydn even taught Beethoven for a while (more on that later). Read more about his life here. I would also like to point out that he was affectionately nicknamed “Papa Haydn” by the musicians who worked for him because he was a kind boss and adviser, which is awesome. Read more about his nickname here.

In 1793, Haydn wrote his Andante with variations in F minor. Significantly, this is the last piece Haydn ever wrote for solo piano. And it just so happens to be his most famous piano piece. It is organized as a set of double variations consisting of two main themes, two variations on each theme, and a coda (a fancy term for the end of a piece). Let’s listen to it:

The first theme in F minor (0:00-2:27) is almost melancholy with its persistent dotted rhythm, and the varying harmonies describe an inevitable fall from possible hope to sadness. Overall it’s a bit dark, especially considering Haydn is known for his lightness and musical jokes (see my first post to read more about that). However! The second theme in F major (2:27-4:06) is sunny and sparkling.

The variations and the coda embellish on the main themes so much so that some have called the piece a fantasia (type of significantly embellished piece based on improvisation), which is shown in the many trills, frills, and arpeggios throughout the piece. In fact, this particular style Haydn wrote in is similar to what is known as empfindsamer Stil (German for “sensitive style”), which is a type of piece written to express “natural” and “real” feelings including sudden mood contrasts and dramatic flow. (Fun fact: piano music employing the use of empfindsamer Stil was made famous by Carl Phillipp Emanuel Bach; J.S. Bach’s son. Read more here and here).

The coda (10:34-13:55) is especially improvisatory in nature, and honestly it reminds me a lot of Beethoven in the sense that Haydn almost incessantly drills the idea of the “ending” into the piece through intense, cadenza-like passages and dramatic chord shifts and mood changes. 13:04-13:55 especially reminds me a lot of something Beethoven would write. For example, the very ending of the second movement of Beethoven’s sonata op. 28 (from 19:43-20:15 in the video below) reminds me of this particular section. Beethoven was heavily exposed to Haydn’s music when he was a young composer; could his teacher have influenced and inspired aspects of his musical language?

*Side note: Haydn’s Andante is also reminiscent of Mozart’s emotional slow movements, and this piece has particularly been compared to Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor. It doesn’t have the same sunshine as Haydn’s variations, but there is something similar in its dark and brooding nature.

Each mood change, each trill and embellishment, was placed by Haydn to create an emotion in the listener. Enjoying the beauty of this music is easy, especially because Haydn’s legacy is carried on through Mozart and Beethoven.*


*Side note: I love the idea of exploring the relationships between Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Stay tuned!


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