The three composers, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, are considered the triumvirate of composers of music in the classical style. Indeed, these three men gave us what is by far, the greatest music of their time. Schubert is sometimes added to these three names, though I won’t discuss him here for the following reasons. Schubert composed mostly in the new Romantic style, rather than the classical style, until the last few years of his very short life. He left us with some great large-scale masterpieces, though not nearly as many as the other three composers named above.
I want to focus mainly on the differences between the three composers, but first I should briefly discuss the similarities. The classical style is a style in which form plays a more important part than earlier or later styles. The use of sonata form is almost the defining characteristic of the style .(See my blog on sonata form). Sonata form was so pervasive that it invaded every genre of music of the time, even opera and church music. The three composers under discussion here each created works that are a hybrid of other forms and sonata form. Rondo form and variation form were often blended with sonata form.
To put it simply, sonata form begins with simplicity and tonal stability, builds in tension towards a middle section, and reduces the complexity and tension in the last section. The climax is always in the middle. That is where the most complex textures are usually found, as well as the most far-ranging key changes, and the most agitated rhythmic patterns.
Haydn did not create sonata form, but he was a master of it. His grasp of form was excellent, and at the same time, he took a few liberties with his conception of it. Haydn was fond of the false recapitulation. A false recapitulation is a device that can be used near the end of the development section of a sonata form movement. It is a way of fooling the listener into thinking the recapitulation has begun, when it in fact has not begun, and the music is still in the harmonically unstable area of the development section. Of course such a thing as a false recapitulation must be brief in order to be effective. Very soon after fooling the listener, the music will be in the actual recapitulation.
Aside from a false recapitulation, Haydn was fond of surprising the listener with many unexpected turns and twists. Sudden key changes, unexpected shifts of rhythm or harmony, a phrase that leads into something totally different than what is expected; these are a few items in the bag of tricks that Haydn had up his sleeve. He was a genius at surprising the listener with unexpected things, yet still adhering to sonata form. His music is full of idiosyncrasies and eccentric ideas. He experimented constantly with new ways of surprising listeners. He liked to startle the listener with a sudden and unexpected rest, or a fermata that unexpectedly breaks the action. He liked to closely juxtapose remote keys, suddenly changing from one key to a distant one, with no preparation. Mozart was more apt to prepare the listener for the intrusion of a remote key by gradually introducing it.
Haydn was fond of taking a simple motif or germ in one of the themes of a movement and using it as sort of a springboard from which emerges many different musical ideas throughout the movement. Many of his movements are monothematic. In fact one French critic wrote that Haydn only needs one theme to create a symphonic movement while lesser composers needed several. Mozart was certainly not a “lesser composer,” yet he was fond of using more than one or two themes in a movement. Mozart had a knack of using several themes in one movement, yet at the same time, creating a movement that in no way lacks in unity. The first movement of his so-called Paris Symphony (no.32) has a wealth of themes, yet never sounds diffuse or lacking in unity.
It has been pointed out in many books that Beethoven liked to combine Haydn’s monothematic technique with Mozart’s use of multiple themes, and that he achieved this by way of creating a second theme that sounds like a variation or outgrowth of the first theme. There is some truth in this statement, though like all sweeping generalities, it is an inadequate statement. Some of Beethoven’s movements can be analyzed in that manner, such as the opening movement of Symphony no 5, but Beethoven’s methods were quite varied and diverse.
Mozart is a contradiction in that he was more conservative and followed the “rules” much more than Haydn, yet his music is incomparable. Haydn was very much given to surprising, and even shocking the listener, yet Mozart rarely did this. His music is more regular and well behaved. Yet within the confines of the boundaries he seemingly imposed on himself, Mozart left us many incomparable masterpieces.
Haydn was apt to present his themes in the recapitulation in a different order than they were presented in the exposition, and sometimes did not present his themes verbatim in the recapitulation. Mozart rarely reordered his themes, and almost always repeated them verbatim. Mozart could afford a more unaltered repetition of his themes because his themes tended to be full-blown lyrical melodies.
When it comes to piano trios, string quartets, and symphonies, Haydn left us more great masterpieces than Mozart, though the last three symphonies by Mozart are exquisite masterpieces, equal to or surpassing any symphony of Haydn.. Of course it isn’t fair to compare the oeuvre of a man who died just before his 36th birthday with that of a man who lived to be 77.
In opera Mozart was unsurpassed. Haydn openly admitted that Mozart’s operas were far greater than his own. The classical concerto being so close in style to the classical opera, composers who were successful in one were usually successful in the other. This goes a long way toward explaining why Mozart was a composer of such great concertos, while Haydn’s concertos, for the most part, are mediocre works like his operas. The one concerto by Haydn, by the way, that I find to be a great masterpiece is his trumpet concerto. Though more, conservative than the usual work of Haydn, his trumpet concerto is a wonderful piece and can easily take its place beside the great trumpet concerto by Hummel.
In church music Mozart was far greater than Joseph Haydn. Haydn once said that his brother Michael was a better composer of church music than he himself was. If you listen to Haydn’s masses for the Catholic Church you will see that they are really symphonies with choir. There are no stylistic differences between his masses and his symphonies. He did not have a thorough grasp of the baroque ecclesiastic style, though Mozart had a deep understanding of Bach, Handel, and other masters of baroque church music. During his two trips to London after his retirement from Esterhazy, Haydn became familiar with the great oratorios of Handel. Out of this new understanding of Handel, Haydn gave us his two great oratorios, “Creation” and “Seasons,” both of which, in my opinion, far surpass the greatness of his masses, though in his very last mass, he finally achieved a satisfactory unification of symphonic and choral styles.
Beethoven was influenced a great deal by both Haydn and Mozart. He took a touch of this and a touch of that from both of them, and infused his own unique personality into his music. To my ear, it seems that Beethoven was influenced much more by Haydn than Mozart, though a few of his early works are obviously modeled after works by Mozart. From Haydn, Beethoven got his love of the false recapitulation. Also from Haydn, comes Beethoven’s love of the sudden and unexpected pause and the unexpected fermata. Beethoven was even more fond of sudden surprises than was Haydn. And Haydn’s high-spirited wit was certainly not lost on him. Musical humor in the style of Haydn is found in almost every genre of music that Beethoven composed in, from piano sonatas, to string quartets and symphonies, he is sometimes deadly serious, and sometimes overtly comic. His symphony no 4 and symphony no. 8 are replete with Haydnesque humor and wit.
The idea of using a small germ or motif to generate the musical energy of an entire movement is something that Beethoven learned from Haydn. The opening movement of Symphony no. 5 is a good example, but many examples of such a thing can be found in his late works.
Essentially Beethoven used the forms that he inherited from Haydn and Mozart, ie sonata form, rondo, variation form, and expanded these forms. He increased the length and intensity of the development section. Beethoven had a tremendous variety of ways of creating a sonata-form movement. He would sometimes be rather terse, going quickly from his first theme to his second theme, and then closing the exposition soon after presenting the second theme. Sometimes, like Mozart, he would use a group of first themes in the tonic key, and then present a group of themes in another key, usually the dominant. Sometimes his sonata-form movements are very tightly argued. Other times they are somewhat looser in conception. The variety Beethoven created within the context of sonata form is astounding!
Late in his life Beethoven became much more interested in counterpoint. He especially became much more interested in fugues. He also became more interested in variation form, using it sometimes in movements to piano sonatas and string quartets. Indeed the finale of his Symphony no. 9 can be thought of as a sort of combination of sonata form and theme and variations.
It is hard to describe the music of Beethoven. For me, I would say he had essentially three main modes of expression. There is his playful and humorous side. There is his dramatic side. His music could sometimes be so dramatic and powerful that is makes your skin crawl. And there is his dreamy, introspective side. I realize that breaking down Beethoven’s variety of expression into three categories is rather facile, even faulty, yet I can’t help but do it. Sorry about that.