If it weren’t for Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn would be the most famous composer of the Classical era. And yet, Haydn and Mozart were friends and mutual admirers, and Beethoven studied composition with Haydn.
“When I play Haydn’s music, I feel I’m having a wide-ranging, sometimes intimate conversation with the wittiest possible companion,” explains Paul Orgel, one of Vermont’s finest pianists, who lives in Shelburne and teaches at the University of Vermont.
“Haydn was, of course, classical music’s tireless inventor, the Benjamin Franklin of composers: founding father of the string quartet, piano trio, symphony and to an extent, the piano sonata, Mass and oratorio.”
Orgel will perform an all-Haydn piano program in a faculty recital at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, at the UVM Recital Hall in Burlington. He will preview the recital at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Community Music Center of Middlebury, as a benefit for the center.
Orgel’s program will feature the early Sonata in G minor, his last three, large-scale piano sonatas, in E-flat, C and E-flat major, and the F minor Variations.
Haydn (1732-1809), an Austrian like Mozart, was dubbed the father of the string quartet and of the symphony, composing 107 symphonies and 83 string quartets. He spent much of his career as a court musician for the wealthy Esterházy family at their remote estate. Until the latter part of his life, this isolated him from other composers and trends in music so that he was, as he put it, “forced to become original.”
“Haydn was more prolific than Mozart and Beethoven, really comparable to Bach,” Orgel said recently by phone. “Haydn wrote approximately 50 sonatas, as opposed to 32 by Beethoven and 20-something from Mozart. So there’s a lot of room in his sonatas for experiment.”
Haydn’s early sonatas mark a developing period, taking different forms with different processes, sequences and experiments with keys.
“They’re fairly unassuming pieces — not like Beethoven where each sonata has its own strong purpose and identity,” Orgel said. “What happens with Haydn in the sonatas, as well as the other genres he developed, was a kind of progression toward greater, deeper music.
“By the time of his last sonata, the big E-flat Sonata, he had written a larger more-public piece than the others, a virtuosic work — and that leads right to the early sonatas of Beethoven,” Orgel said.
Unlike Mozart and Beethoven, Haydn wasn’t a virtuoso pianist.
“The majority of the early sonatas are for harpsichord,” Orgel said. “Gradually, he became acquainted with pianos. The final sonatas, I think, were for the early piano of Beethoven.”
From the early F minor Sonata, one of the Haydn’s hallmarks is the unexpected.
“He writes two very melancholy, introverted movements, and that’s it — no prescribed form, no anything — just that was his mood at the time,” Orgel said. “That piece is very unexpected in its way.”
Orgel credits that to the influence of C.P.E. (Carl Phillip Emmanuel) Bach (1714-88), Johann Sebastian’s second surviving son.
“His music was quite radical, and Haydn learned a lot from him,” Orgel said.
Another work exhibiting that sense of the unexpected is the D Major Sonata, his next to last — which lasts only 6 minutes.
“It’s two movements, and the first anticipates Schubert. It’s kind of songful,” Orgel said. “And a short finale, presto, in which everything is askew. Every accent is in the wrong place. It’s absolutely nuts to follow — comical, I think.”
While the opera composer can always be heard in Mozart’s sonatas, that’s not usually the case in Haydn.
“But another sonata I’m playing, a late one in E-flat, to me, has that opera buffa joyousness about it,” Orgel said. “I think that’s why I really love it.”
Perhaps most distinctive is the F minor Variations.
“That’s a late work, and an absolutely extraordinary work,” Orgel said. “It’s a set of what’s called double variations, so there are two themes that are varied back and forth.
“But the main thing is the work’s atmosphere that I might compare to the Mozart A minor Rondo,” Orgel said. “What you hear in this, some people have suggested, is the rocking of the coach going to the gravesite of someone that Haydn was close to. It’s a very, very expressive piece that gets more and more intense and kind of explodes into a fantasy at the end.
“It’s a late work — and it’s not at all tame and well behaved, as some people expect Haydn to be. It’s a really great work,” Orgel said.