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Sonata Form Experimentation in Joseph Haydn’s String Quartets, Opus 17

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In 1963, Jens Peter Larsen published an article entitled “Sonata Form Problems,” in which he outlines some of Haydn’s unique solutions to sonata-exposition structures. Using Larsen’s hypotheses, coupled with William Caplin’s insights in Classical Form, and James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s ground-breaking Elements of Sonata Theory, I will examine the diversity of Haydn’s formal procedures in certain movements of his oft-neglected Opus 17 string quartets of 1771. These works provide a staggering array of sonata-form possibilities, many of which deviate provocatively from the High Classical sonata form model.

In a brief overview of the Opus 17 quartets’ 17 sonata-form movements (presented in tabular form), we will explore the diversity of Haydn’s formal procedures. Four of James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s five sonata-form “types” (from their Elements of Sonata Theory) are employed in Opus 17: Type 1 sonatas (which lack a development section), Type 2 sonatas (which omit the main theme from the recapitulation), Type 3 sonatas (the “textbook” form), and Type 4 sonatas (a sonata-rondo blend). Following this overview, we will turn in depth to three specific movements from this opus: the slow movements of Opus 17, nos. 1 and 3, and the sonata-rondo finale of Opus 17, no. 1. In these works, Haydn’s fondness for anomalous thematic structures will be explored and examined as viable alternatives to normative sonata-form design. Haydn’s formal inventiveness in his Opus 17 quartets strongly suggests that he was not seeking to problematize sonata form, but rather, positing a wide range of solutions for the balance of thematic and developmental activity in these works.