In the mind of the composer – Willem Woestenburg’s piano concerto

Cecily Lock, December 2007

Willem Woestenburg loves the music of Joseph Haydn. He knows every symphony, every piano sonata. He also has a very interesting hobby: he transcribes. Most of the time Woestenburg rearranges his favourite music so that it can be played on the piano. His compositions include, for example, piano transcriptions of two of Haydn’s late piano trios. His very latest creation is a piano arrangement of the slow movement, the Andante, of the piano trio in C major.

Yet Woestenburg does not see himself as a composer. He talks of his work as a ‚craft’ rather than as a ‚composition’. He says it is a ‚challenge’ to make arrangements of Haydn’s music sound as good as and as much like Haydn as possible. The music itself ‚dictates the law’. When it comes to matters of instrumentation, for example, it usually is not really a matter of choice. He tries to add as little of himself as possible.

It was only by coincidence that I heard, from one of his students, of the piano concerto. As with all of Woestenburg’s transcriptions, the music stays very close to the original, in this case one movement from a piano sonata, and two from different symphonies.

It all began, many years ago, with the idea of writing a rondo for piano and orchestra. The 2nd movement of Hob. XVI: 48, a Rondo. Presto, is transformed into a virtuosic and energetic dialogue between soloist and orchestra. (Tip: Go to ‚media’ and listen to the 2nd movement of Hob. XVI:48...) The key is C major, the same key Beethoven used for his 1st piano concerto. And just as in Beethoven’s third-movement Rondo, the soloist in Woestenburg’s Rondo begins, followed by the orchestra repeating the principal idea. (Beethoven’s 1st piano concerto was written in 1795-1801, Haydn’s sonata in 1789.)

Woestenburg uses typical ‚Haydn techniques’, and writes for the same instruments Haydn frequently used: one flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two (natural) horns (with modest use of ‚stopped tones’), strings and ad libitum timpani and trumpets.

Having completed the Rondo, Woestenburg decides to add two more movements to make up a whole concerto. He looks amongst the piano sonatas for suitable material for a first movement. No luck..., so he turns to the symphonies. Symphony no. 82, the first of the ‚Paris’ symphonies, also referred to as ‚The Bear’, looks like the perfect solution, the sphere is just what Woestenburg was looking for. The symphony was written for a large orchestra. Haydn, though still at Esterhaza, was already famous when he wrote this symphony. The second theme (originally for woodwind instruments) is easy to re-write for piano.

Every key has ist own meaning and colour. You need to be very sensitive towards this fact, Woestenburg explains. C major is a ‚bright’ key, very ‚extrovert’. There is no ‚shadow’ in the music. Woestenburg adds ad libitum timpani and trumpets, but points out that you need to be careful with the balance.

The form of the symphonic movement has to be slightly transformed. Woestenburg remains faithful to Haydn’s keyboard style and, again, opens the movement piano solo. He is inspired by Haydn’s piano sonatas, which he knows very well. He uses typical ‚figures’, and avoids, for example, ‚double trills’, which are typical of Beethoven rather than of Haydn.

For the second movement Woestenburg chooses the key of F major, a ‚soft’ key. F major is the subdominant, the relation to the main key frequently occurs in Haydn’s music. Woestenburg cannot find any suitable movement in the piano sonatas, and turns to the late symphonies. The Adagio in F major of symphony no. 102 (one of the ‚London’ symphonies, composed in 1794-5) includes a cello solo accompaniment and the use of the horns is remarkable. The keyboard part, again, has to be newly composed, but apart from that ‚the original instrumentation cannot be improved’. (Tip: Download the second movement of symphony no. 102 for free at Muse Data).

Years later, while listening to the recordings of the Beaux Arts Trio, Woestenburg suddenly realises that the second movement of Haydn’s trio in F, Hob. XV:26 (1795), is a transposition of the 2nd second movement of symphony no. 102. This is a perfect example showing that it was perfectly common in Haydn’s time to rearrange works for other instruments. Salomon, to give another example, rearranged all of Haydn’s ‚London symphonies’ for pianoforte, flute, string quartet and double bass. Transcribing was also a useful means for generating extra income. The choice of key here, in the trio, though, is extraordinary. F sharp major is a very special key, also used in the ‚Farewell symphony’.

The Adagio is very Haydnesque, distinctly different to Mozart’s slow movements. Mozart’s music is always very vocal, never without a touch of melancholy. Haydn’s music is more ‚objective’, and is as beautiful as ‚the shining of stainless steel’. ‚It is just a feeling, difficult to explain’, Woestenburg adds, but you immediately recognize Haydn; in every piece of music there is at least one moment which is unmistakably Haydn.

How long did it take Woestenburg to write the concerto?, I ask and am surprised by the answer: ‚Once you’re on the road, it doesn’t take very long’, just two or three days for each movement.

Woestenburg himself would not want to perform his concerto in public, he admits, but he is sure that he will enjoy sitting in the audience. He is much in favour of the fortepiano, besides the modern piano. Plans have already been made for Richard Eager to perform the concerto in Haydn year 2009.

Readers interested in studying or playing Willem Woestenburg’s concerto are welcome to take up contact via The Haydn Keyboard Project (mail@haydnproject.org). There are just two conditions, Woestenburg smiles: Firstly, basic technical and musical competence in piano-playing, and secondly (most importantly!) the concerto should be performed ‚with a lot of joy’.