The Hands Behind the Sonata

Who played it first and why that matters

Today in the Music Academy Concert Hall Online, we are pleased to present solo piano fellow Hsin-Hao Yang in a performance of Joseph Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob.XVI/52. Today’s blog post delves into some of the circumstances surrounding this work.


What is it that makes a “great” piano sonata? Ask a pianist, a music historian, or a music theorist, and you’d be unlikely to get a simple answer (as it should be!). Still, there are certain pieces in the classical piano repertoire that seem to be a cut above the rest. This piece, Haydn’s last Piano Sonata (E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52), has been called the “greatest” of his entries in this genre by, among others, the Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker and the British musicologist Donald Tovey. They published their opinions over a century ago, and yet to this day, their reasoning is still widely shared – this sonata looks and sounds a lot like a Beethoven piano sonata, more so than Haydn’s other works for solo piano. Without getting too technical, Haydn uses several compositional techniques that Beethoven used in his own works, only Haydn accomplished this slightly less than a decade before him. Rather than dwell on this comparison between two of the most “classic” of the Classical composers, however, we would do well to go beyond music theory and instead focus on who actually played this piece of music when Haydn first wrote it – the German pianist Therese Jansen, one of the hidden talents in the history of pianists.

Portrait of Joseph Haydn by English painter Thomas Hardy (1791)

Therese Jansen lived from 1770-1843. While the family came from Germany, at some point her father, a dancer, moved the family business to London. There, he taught well-to-do families to dance while Therese and her younger brother Louis accompanied them at the piano. Therese studied piano with the Italian composer and pianist Muzio Clementi. Little is known of her life during this time, but we can surmise that she excelled as a pianist, playing for small groups in London salons (small gatherings of wealthy people where they discussed culture and played music for each other). In 1791, she was well-known enough that her family received free tickets from the impresario Johann Peter Salomon to attend the premiere of Haydn’s first batch of London symphonies. She was the dedicatee of piano works during this time by Clementi and Haydn.

When Haydn returned to London for a second time, he composed and dedicated this very Sonata to her, and in an unusual move, did not immediately publish the piece. Musicologist Daniel Heartz suggests that this may have been to allow Jansen to be its exclusive performer for a number of years. It is a shame that we know so little of the relationship between Haydn and Jansen, but there is evidence to suggest a mutual respect, if not a friendship. In addition to his dedications, Haydn attended her wedding in 1795, and they remained in contact when Haydn returned to Vienna.

Without Therese Jansen, it is possible this sonata might never have reached the level of popularity and prestige it now enjoys. Indeed, as Haydn specifically wrote it for her to play, it seems likely it would not even be the same piece. As we search for new understandings of music that we love, it is paramount that we remember that music is never created in a vacuum by a single mind—it is necessarily a collaboration.

– Marc Lombardino


About the Annotator

Marc Lombardino is a PhD candidate in Musicology at UC Santa Barbara, whose research focuses on the relationship between music, dancing, and etiquette in France in the late seventeenth century. He is also a collaborative pianist and piano teacher working in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. As a pianist, he accompanies ballet classes at Lauridsen Ballet Centre in Torrance among many other locations.

This guest post comes courtesy of the Music Academy’s partnership with the UC Santa Barbara Department of Music, a key part of our new Project Resonance initiative. To learn more about Project Resonance, read the Resonance Blog’s introductory post here.