Tricky Corners: The Opening Phrase

I’ve been working with a student on Franz Joseph Haydn’s beautiful Sonata in E flat major Hob 52. Haydn’s final piano sonata was written in 1794, and it’s full of joie de vivre, a characteristic synonymous with Haydn’s music. Set in my favourite key, this work exudes warmth, colour, and a quite different harmonic and textural language from his earlier works in this form.

Haydn had recently acquired a new Broadwood instrument; a two-manual fortepiano with considerably more power than previous instruments. The original fortepiano sits in the museum at the Royal College of Music in London, and, whilst a student at the RCM, I was fortunate to play this piece on that instrument. It was quite a challenge! The keys are smaller than that of a concert grand, they are much ‘lighter’, and there are two manuals to contend with, but, by far the biggest issue (for me), was the knee pedal. The sustaining pedal was often set just under the keyboard in fortepianos of this period, played with the right knee, it felt unnatural to say the least. Adjusting one’s ears and listening skills was probably the most valuable lesson learned from the whole experience.

This sonata is tricky to play. Whilst it’s very much in the Classical style, the texture is thicker than one might expect and virtuosity is most definitely required, particularly in the light of the continually darting demisemiquaver passages, which must glisten and sparkle; they are juxtaposed with fulsome, sometimes spread, chords.

The opening two bars of the first movement, Allegro (Moderato), are, perhaps, the most crucial of the whole piece. They set the character, are full of drama and joy, and contain important thematic material. My student prepared the first movement of this sonata for her recent entrance auditions to music college, and it was to be the opening piece, therefore, setting the stage, mood and intention, was paramount.

The Classical style is all about control. Interpretation must be elegant, well-defined and clearly articulated, presenting the overriding issue of keeping absolutely rhythmical whilst phrasing expressively. However, when learning this piece, the first two bars can cause all sorts of grief, largely because the opening chords don’t always ‘fit’ under the hand comfortably; the movement between chords should ideally be very swift, but each chord demands a large sonority and the top line must still soar above the accompaniment. We spent a significant amount of time on these two bars, and it took quite a few weeks before they began to sound natural, perfectly rhythmical, and convincing.

The following practice suggestions are based on our lessons, and might be helpful for those learning this piece, or other works containing similar issues.

Firstly, let’s look at the passage:

Ex. 1

Many will prefer to use the fifth finger on the top A flat (bar 1, beat 3), but after trial and error, we settled on the fourth; the fourth finger can be very powerful here, especially is it is guided to use its ‘tip’ for a deeper sound and firmer control.

We began working on the top line alone, as this is the secret to a clean, accurate opening; if such a passage can’t be handled at speed, the outer fingers (fourth and fifth) might be to blame, as they are often unable to garner the firmness required to take control of the whole chord sufficiently. The melodic material must be played rhythmically and with clear direction, and, therefore, finding a way to keep the pulse secure whilst moving from chord to chord, and note to note, can be a major challenge:

Ex. 2

We kept a slow semiquaver pulse (marked by the numbers under the first two beats in Ex. 2) and this was implemented for a good while, using the metronome on two different semiquaver beat settings, one extremely slow, and another, much faster, so that each note was played precisely to the ‘tick’. At first, we accented the main beats:

Ex. 3

And then reversed these accents to highlight notes which tend to become ‘swallowed’ during the hand moving process, and we worked at these passages using the finger-tips (or very top of the finger surface) only:

Ex. 4

My student found it necessary to nuance the notes marked with accents in Ex. 4, as, being part of the melody, they required careful ‘placing’ in order to avoid becoming lost between the chords; these notes not only need a full sonority, but also, perfect rhythm, which takes time to ‘feel’ or become natural. When practising single lines of music, it’s important to keep the fingering intended whilst playing the whole passage, or the complete texture.

Quick movement is imperative, and one complaint I often here is that playing and practising very slowly is so different from playing fast or up to speed, rendering slow practice not helpful. I certainly don’t agree with this point of view. Once really slow practice has been properly implemented, and students understand the movements thoroughly, gradually adding speed is a simple process. This is why the metronome is such a beneficial part of the learning process; it’s possible to use a variety of different tempi, only increasing the speed as and when students feel comfortable.

The suggested fingerings used for the melodic line don’t always allow for legato; moving from a fourth finger to another fourth finger without a noticeable sound ‘gap’ demanded astute listening, and, consequently, leaving the finger on the previous note for as long as possible, and then matching the sound of the ‘dying’ note to that of the next note, is crucial here. This, of course, is made much easier by use of the sustaining pedal, but joining or ‘imagining’ the join eventually proffers a much smoother phrase than one which purely relies on the pedal.

One aspect which we focused on particularly, and it’s one I’ve written about before during this series of articles, is that fact that the fifth finger on the B flat (bar 2, beat 2) will ‘slip’ off easily, if it doesn’t ‘grip’ the black note. Many will read the word ‘grip’ with horror (because of concerns about tension), but it is necessary to form a firm connection between the finger and key as that note is played, and it’s made more complicated by the fact that the right hand must play an F and D at the same moment. We started by observing the fifth finger as it plays the key, acquiring a sense of the finger-tip and the precision demanded to play securely on a black note; to do this optimally, the finger joint (the one nearest the tip), but also be fully engaged, encouraging ‘active’ fingers:

Photo 1

Exaggerated movements (such as the placement of my fifth finger on the B flat in Photo 1), provide helpful practice until the feeling of using the finger-tip has been fully digested. For practice purposes, oscillating between using a flatter finger-tip and employing the actual tip of the finger, in order to assimilate the difference between the two, is a good idea. The same attention is also needed for the fourth finger on the A flat (bar 1, beat 3 of Ex. 4), and my student used these exercises on the first E flat major chord at the beginning (bar 1, beat 1), too, as the E flat at the top of the chord demands power. We found the exercises in Ex. 5, homing in on the black notes within the melody line, played slowly, useful, but as with many exercises, they must only be done for very short periods of time (eliminating any possible tension), and they require absolute focus, observing hand and finger positions – and most importantly, the ‘feeling’, which can foster security:

Ex. 5

The demisemiquaver group, particularly, should be practised evenly with a heavy touch – however, the whole opening might benefit from this approach, as well. Aim to keep each note rhythmical with a slight leaning on the first note of the group (as marked):

Ex. 6

Some editions suggest the first note in this group (the A flat) is tied to the previous A flat quaver, but we worked from the Wiener Urtext Edition (Schott/Universal), which suggests otherwise. The fifth and fourth finger, which play the A flat and G at the beginning of the demisemiquaver passage in bar 1, would benefit from accentuation during practice, as marked in Ex. 6; we worked with a variety of accents and a very heavy touch for a period of time (whilst being sure to keep the arm, hand and wrist relaxed at all times). When under control and fingers have gained the required power, that is, the notes can be played rhythmically at both slow and fast tempi, that touch can be lightened, so it’s possible to ‘skim’ the passage whilst still keeping each note even and clean.

We found it necessary to practice the following to secure bar 2 (of Ex. 4) beats 1 & 2, so that the F and A flat semiquavers sound clearly and form an integral part of the melodic line:

Ex. 7

All exercises printed here should ideally be practised slowly and deliberately. Once happy with the melody line, which was now feeling firm and well phrased, we moved on to adding the chords, first, with those in the right-hand part, and then, both hands together.

Playing the chords without the melody proves beneficial, to learn the necessary shape of the phrase and hand position changes. In order for the melody to prevail, the right hand and wrist can be encouraged to move slightly to the right (see photo 2), so that the arm and wrist can support the weaker fingers, supplying them with power and a feeling of ‘grounding’; this hopefully eliminates possible errors at the top of the chord, as, by now, fingers have been appropriately worked on, and can find the weight of key needed to highlight the melody:

Photo 2

Next, chord ‘separation’ was helpful, as psychologically it makes it easier to articulate each beat with clarity, quelling the need to rush or push the pulse, which is what can tend to happen under pressure whilst negotiating any chord jumps. The vertical arrow markings in Ex. 8 between the beats are indications where to lift the hands off the keyboard for a millisecond, allowing breathing time and space between the chords (or single notes), encouraging clear articulation, as well as offering the grandeur this opening demands:

Ex. 8

These ‘separations’, which are hiatuses, or sound ‘gaps’, during practice, won’t be noticeable once up to speed, but they will provide an overall sense of character and control, and encourage the semiquaver beats at bar 1 beat 2 and bar 2 beats 1 & 2, to be very precise, acquiring the majestic semblance.

The metronome is a friend to the Classical style! Several speeds were employed during this part of the learning process; usually three different metronome markings, ranging from very slow to just under tempo, depending on the depth of touch being worked on. Once the correct tempo and key-weight was implemented, we turned our attention to colouring the D flat (bar 1, beat 2), and contrasting this harmonic colour between that and the D natural in bar 2.

The dynamic plan on which we settled looked something like this:

Ex. 9

The richness of the opening four chords, the first with its spread bass, can be effectively ‘captured’ by practising them standing up! What’s interesting about this approach is that it effectively demonstrates the use of arm-weight required to produce the appropriate sound, as essentially the performer is playing ‘into’ the key from above with a loose wrist and the entire ‘weight’ of the arm; this has the effect of opening the whole upper body combined with the sense of descending into the keybed. One can also ‘hear’ the piano sound more effectively whilst standing up, too. We found it helped to highlight the very bottom and top of the chords during this process (this is especially true of the bottom note in the left hand, the E flat). Although a good way to practice, one clearly wouldn’t play like this, so the next challenge is to implement this sound and ‘feeling’ whilst seated, involving almost ‘throwing’ the weight of the arm, behind the hands and wrists.

Once the sustain pedal is added to every chord during the opening two bars, an impressive resonance rings from the instrument.

There are many ways in which to play this opening phrase, and I leave you with a collection of fascinating, and very different, performances.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

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