Some 10ths Moments

Having just read Elaine’s post over at Musical Assumptions about the Trio section of the Minuet from Haydn’s A major Piano Sonata Hob. XVI:12, some things about the music grabbed my attention. Most notably, the seeming and subtle complexity Haydn generates from very simple materials. Here is the first half of the Trio:


The A-section of the Trio begins in A minor and modulates to C major. And while it’s tempting to do a functional analysis—just about everything fits nicely into common-practice harmony—this passage is more contrapuntal in nature.

First a rhythmic reduction, normalizing the syncopations and register:


Of interest in the first seven measures is the bass: It’s a lament bass (or, a chromatic lament bass to be exact), however when it arrives at scale degree 5 in m. 6, it isn’t supporting the dominant. Instead it’s the mediant in first inversion, which provides for a smooth pivot to C major. In m. 7  a patterned ascent begins: A 5–6 sequence between the bass and the middle voice, arriving at the new tonic (C) in m. 12. The modulation is confirmed in mm. 13-14 with a perfect-authentic cadence.

A further reduction of the outer voices reveals that the A-section is essentially 12 measures of successive 10ths, followed by a cadence:


These sorts of things are always a joy to discover, if for no other reason because they reinforce the notion that music is “always the same, but not in the same way” (semper idem sed non eodem modo). But that aphorism suggests something else too: Beneath every apparent complexity there is an elegant simplicity, and that somewhere between the two lies the spirit and essence of the composer.

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5 Responses to Some 10ths Moments

  1. Elaine Fine says:

    I never knew that that kind of chromatic bass line was actually called a “lament bass.” (It’s so much more evocative than the term “chromatically-descending tetrachord.”) The first four pitches are like the bass line in Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa (though that’s an ostinato), so I suppose the name is highly appropriate. It’s so easy to get lost in those chains of tenths and forget that there is or has ever been anything wrong with the world. I’m glad that you found the piece as magical as I did!


    • Sean says:

      On a first listening, I’m ready for G# in m. 6 but he keeps the G-natural instead. So he keeps the motion going by virtue of not arriving at the dominant, but also because the chord he does arrive at is in first inversion, i.e. it’s slightly less stable and continues to pull us along.


  2. Elaine Fine says:

    I should correct myself: the Lamento della ninfa has a diatonic tetrachord, not a chromatic one. Anyway, I played the Haydn at least ten times today, and then I made an arrangement of it for viola and clarinet. The repetition in measure 6 is surprising, but I have found that Haydn often puts in repetitions of figures where you least expect them, perhaps to maintain instability. I just love the first four measures of the “B” section, and those octave leaps form B to B that mean very different things in the beginning and at the end..


  3. Elaine Fine says:

    . . . meaning the chromatic descent in the upper voice from B to B flat, on to A, and then that all-important G sharp that only acts as a leading tone at the end of the measure.


  4. Sean says:

    This is only speculation, but I wonder if Haydn mightn’t (Haydn’t?) have composed, or at least sketched, mm. 23 – 27 first. The harmony and phrasing comports a bit more to what we might expect: i — V6 — vii˚4/3 of iv — iv6 — V, and then from there he could expand the bass descent and arrive at the first seven measures. It’s interesting too that while the line is expanded in the A-section, it has fewer measures than the B-section (7+7 versus 8+8). But, there’s a risk in being redundant when saying there are surprises in Haydn’s music.


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