In December 2008, as he prepared to launch into a series of concerts of Franz Joseph Haydn's complete piano sonatas performed by NEC students, NEC piano department chair Bruce Brubaker fielded questions on the meaning of this body of literature to the audiences that first heard the sonatas and audiences of today.

Bruce Brubaker on Haydn's piano sonatas

How many Haydn sonatas have you counted, and how did you decide to make your tally?

I’m still counting—and recounting.

—There are questions about some pieces that have frequently been included in publications of Haydn’s music but which likely are music written by other people.

—There are some outright fakes.

—We have just the beginnings of six early sonatas that are lost. In 1993, they were found – but it turns out, the forger took Haydn’s actual beginnings and went from there.

The whole issue of connoisseurship is an aspect of this project. In the eighteenth century, the concept of artistic “ownership” was just beginning. People appropriated and borrowed and stole. In a museum, we are interested to see works from the “School of Rubens.” In music, we might be more open. At the moment, by the way, it seems we will be offering performances of 59 “sonatas” in Boston.

Living in an era when "sonata form" is seen as a solid musical building block that is not open to question, what should a young pianist of today be on the alert for in “sonatas” a la Haydn?

Well, what is a sonata? This “form” was only defined in the middle of the nineteenth century, well after Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were dead! Haydn often challenges what we may imagine are the norms. Frequently, the second theme group is melodically the same as the first—key and character are changed. We might understand the sonata more as a pattern of behavior than as a “form.” Ideas are introduced, they undergo challenge, sometimes violent. There are opportunities for excursion, and an “identity” emerges. A sonata can be rather like the Germanic novel of character development, the Bildungsroman.

Oh, those Germans! They were starting to stake a claim on artistic and philosophical innovation in Haydn's era, weren’t they? Are there aspects of this historical moment that are particularly helpful for performers of the Haydn works to keep in mind?

Haydn’s music certainly suggests that he knew a lot of old music, and yet we don’t really find him adding deliberately archaic procedures or textures—the way Mozart or Beethoven might. That’s a kind of “historicizing” I believe. (The most forward looking aspects of Beethoven’s late music are some instances of the same things that make it seem ancient, or at last strongly colored by the past.) Haydn’s music is so deeply funny and full of play. The structure, vocabulary, and behaviors of eighteenth-century music are under the siege of Haydn’s pen! Nothing can escape being made fun of. That must have ramifications in terms of the way social orders and patterns of behavior were shifting and questioned as the century unfolded. And then Haydn’s life as a musician crosses boundaries. He was very much an employee or servant of the Esterhazys, but later he was venerated in London as an independent “composer.” So he may have begun by musically questioning or lampooning musical order from within the conventional hierarchy, but eventually he actually stepped outside the musician “role.”

You say “Haydn’s music is so deeply funny and full of play.” Is it “permissible” for a concert pianist of today to “have fun” or “be funny?” How does this affect the performer’s relationship with the audience? Where/how would you place a Haydn sonata on a “traditional” piano recital program with work by other composers?

We should be funny. It’s not easy. A lot of the usual trappings of classical concerts are against it. So audiences need permission and encouragement. I think comedy is harder than tragedy, in general, and musical jokes often play on particular fleeting conventions that the audience may not know. So it’s a big and serious job that needs doing. Often “classical” music is associated with sadness, seriousness, and in pop culture, with “evil”! We can rescue it—and rescue ourselves in the process.

“Rescue ourselves”—that’s a powerful promise! What impact do you think the Haydn sonatas had on those who heard and performed them during the “Age of Revolution,” when they were fresh off the page? What is different (or is it) in how they can enrich our lives in 2009?

It such interesting speculation… Jacques Attali has written about music’s way of “predicting” changes in society. It’s accepted thinking that Soviet audiences heard “resistance” in Shostakovich’s music. Can we imagine that the eighteenth-century consumer of piano sonatas might have heard or felt in all of Haydn’s tweaking of convention something going beyond music? For me, now, Haydn’s keyboard music can feel like some window into a way of making music that’s somewhere between planned script and extemporized conversation. And then there’s the humor—all those jokes! Was Haydn a sort of wordless jester? “Fools” and jesters were quite important in many court societies. Think what an impact humor had in the U.S. presidential election we just had!