Glimmer of Hope: Haydn's Andante with Variations in F Minor

Tim Farrand
Fletcher Charles Ransom, Girl Playing Piano

Joseph Haydn, like Lord Byron, is a name familiar to many but whose works are intimately known by only a handful of dedicated admirers. His works are nowhere near as well appreciated as those of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert yet those composers' music would in many ways not be possible without the works of Haydn. He paved the way for our modern understanding of genres such as the string quartet, sonata, and symphony.

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791)

Haydn presents a wonderful combination of wit and expressivity. His exceptional craftsmanship allows for the subtlest of gestures to bubble up and inhabit the listener. Of all the Classical composers, Haydn's music surpasses in humor yet never becomes frivolous. His acute sensitivity to the human experience, along with his clarity of expression, allowed him to delve deep into the corners of our shared emotional landscapes to investigate the many facets of our being.

One of Haydn's most emotional and heartfelt works is his Andante with Variations in F Minor Hob. XVII: 6. This work was once intended as a movement of a larger sonata but it took on a life of its own with Haydn creating an entire world within a set of double variations.

In variation form, a composer takes a theme and repeats it several times with each iteration ornamented or altered in some way. Variations tend to get more elaborate from one repetition to the next and this form allows a composer to show off their craftsmanship. In this work, Haydn takes not just one theme but two very different themes and varies them both separately but in a style that allows them to remain within the same emotional context.

In the double variations of Hob. XVII: 6, Haydn could have simply shown off his technical abilities but instead he weaves an intense and tragic journey. Haydn, like a poet, takes a very strict form and uses it as a gateway into the depths of human experience.

His first theme is a tragic F minor that is reminiscent of a funeral march. The dotted rhythms of the melody paired with the consistency of the left-hand accompaniment give the sense of a slow procession.

Beyond the exterior setting, Haydn takes us deep within the emotional landscape of the many thoughts and feelings that one encounters when faced with a heavy loss. He pairs the repetition of rhythm with the repetition of notes, such as the repeated F's at the second measure, to create the sense of struggle against the dark harmonies that lie underneath. The subject attempts to break away from the tragic yet remains tied down to the emotions of the moment, fully immersed in the inner thoughts of grief:

After the first iteration of the F minor theme comes the second theme in the bright key of F major which parts the clouds to allow a glimmer of hope to descend amidst the funereal setting of the work. Haydn shows that within the tragic can come optimism through the remembrance of brighter days. There is a gentle, calming nature inherent in this theme with its circular figuration emitting an enveloping sense of compassion:

These two themes, on the outside, seem starkly different but, when viewed correctly, pair perfectly together. The difficulty for the pianist is to strike the difference between both emotional landscapes so as to maintain the overall character of the work while allowing the varied expressions to come through. For example, the performer needs to restrain the F major variations so that they present hope within difficult times instead of taking the listener completely out of the context of the work and into a jubilant disillusionment that ruins that journey Haydn attempts to create.

This is highlighted in a masterclass by the great pianist Sir András Schiff, a pianist very keen on detail and who has dedicated his life to developing an approach to composers on both sides of the Classical era. In this masterclass, Schiff works with a young and talented pianist who struggles to maintain the balance between the two themes. As can be seen below, one can easily turn the F major variations into comedy if one is not careful. The pianist must be a great craftsman just like Haydn or they will create a flippant work instead of a powerful one. Listen to the following section of the masterclass for a great demonstration of how nuanced one must be in order to maintain the work's emotional landscape:

In the work, Haydn allows each theme to enter into a deeper conversation with its inner character. The tragic F minor theme continues inward, exploring the depths of grief and loss until they whirl around the subject, capturing them as if they were in the midst of the swells of a great storm, unable to escape the rushing winds and raging currents:

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, The Spinet (1902)

The F major theme spins into the cascading movements heard in the masterclass segment above giving the incredible sense of rays shining through the clouds:

The emotional highlight of the work is the coda where Haydn breaks loose of the form and gets to the heart of the struggle between hope and despair. The subject continues forward never quite able to culminate in any one direction. Hear how the increasingly chromatic lines lead us deeper into the raging storm of struggle:

As the energy of the subject begins to wear so does the storm. In the end, no definite conclusion can be reached and the work exits entirely open-ended as if disappearing into the ether. Give yourself over to this incredible journey with a few of the many wonderful and varied recordings that have been made. Two masters of the genre would be Alfred Brendel and Sir András Schiff:

Delve into the playing of the past with this incredible recording by Ignacy Jan Paderewski from 1937 which gives a glimpse into a style of performing no longer around today. Paderewski's interpretation adds a romantic element not present in Haydn's time but does allow for a different window of expression to be added to the work itself, another way of viewing the same piece through a differnet lens:

May 11, 2022

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