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Moving from Sonatina to Sonata: Bridging the gap with Johann Wilhelm Hässler

Progressing from late-intermediate level sonatinas by Clementi and Kuhlau to early-advanced level sonatas by Mozart and Haydn can be a challenge for students. The piano repertoire does not have many well-structured eighteenth-century pieces of good musical quality by well-known composers that bridge this gap. The Six Easy Sonatas by Johann Wilhelm Hässler (Edition Peters, edited by Erich Doflein) are excellent choices to help make this transition more manageable. They are short, in two or three movements, and the student can learn much from them about musicality, rhythm, texture, form, articulation, and ornamentation.

Wearing many hats: From London to Moscow 

Johann Wilhelm Hässler was born on March 29, 1747, in Erfurt, Germany. At the age of nine, Hässler commenced his music training under his uncle, Johann Christian Kittel, one of the last students of Johann Sebastian Bach. At age eleven, at his father's insistence, he began an apprenticeship at his father's fur- and hat-making business and continued taking organ lessons. His father did not wish to see Johann choose music as a profession. His lessons were halted, and he unwillingly went to work in his father's factory. However, his passion for music could not be contained, and, in his free time during weekends, he practiced in the attic. His uncle noticed his continuing enthusiasm, and secretly gave him lessons at times.

When he was fourteen years old, after five years of study with his uncle, Hässler became an organist at the Barfüsserkirche in Erfurt. His father passed away in 1769, when Hässler was twenty-two. He accepted the responsibility to assist his mother with the management of his father's business, as expressed in his father's will. At the same time, he continued his passion for music by giving lessons and practicing.

Hässler's travels brought him into contact with some of the most famous European composers. During a 1771 business trip to Hamburg, he unexpectedly made the acquaintance of Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach; after this encounter, Hässler was very much influenced by him. In 1789, Hässler participated in a Dresden organ competition with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Unfortunately, Hässler lost to Mozart, at this time one of Europe's greatest keyboard players. Mozart's critical comments on Hässler's playing come down to us in a letter to his wife from 1789:

His forte is the organ and the piano. Now people here think that because I come from Vienna, I am quite unacquainted with this style and mode of playing. This Hässler's chief excellence on the organ consists in his foot-work, which, since the pedals are scale wise here, is not so very wonderful. Moreover, he has done no more than commit to memory the harmony and modulations of old Sebastian Bach and is not capable of executing a fugue properly; and his playing is not thorough. Thus he is far from being an Albrechtsberger.1 After that we decided to go back to the Russian ambassador's, so that Hässler might hear me on the fortepiano. He played too. I consider Mlle Aurnhammer2 as good a player on the fortepiano as he is, so you can imagine that he has begun to sink very considerably in my estimation.3

Johann Wilhelm Hässler

In contrast to Mozart, it appears that Haydn highly respected Hässler's playing and assisted Hässler upon his 1790 arrival in London. Two years later, according to a letter to his family, he must have felt not fully at home in England: "people here are much too cold; I am going to Russia."4 He moved to St. Petersburg where he served as Russian Imperial Hofkapellmeister to Grand Duke Alexander and composed a cantata for his patron's wedding to Princess Elizabeth. The next year he made his debut in Moscow. He died there on March 27, 1822, following a long career as composer, performer, and piano teacher. After his death, a student erected a monument in Moscow honoring Hässler.

The Six Easy Sonatas

The Six Easy Sonatas were published in Erfurt, Germany, in 1780. The first three sonatas are relatively intermediate in their difficulty level, but the remaining three rise to a more advanced level. This collection contains a great variety of styles, from the Galant to the intensely dramatic. As stated earlier, the Six Easy Sonatas fill the challenging transitional gap from intermediate to early-advanced level. They offer guidance to students in this important style as they progress toward the significant sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Sonata No. 1, the shortest of the set, will now be discussed in some detail.

Sonata No. 1
First movement

The first movement tempo marking, Un poco Andante, means "a little slow." The unusual addition of the words un poco is probably given to ensure a contrast with the second movement's tempo marking of Adagio, which means "very slow." To make the contrast in tempo between the first and second movements, the first movement should not start too slowly. The performer should choose a speed at which the thirty-second-note passages flow comfortably in measures 4, 7, and 22 (see Excerpt 1). I suggest a speed between 88 and 96 to the eighth note.

Excerpt 1: Sonata No. 1 from Six Easy Sonatas, Mvt. 1, by Johann Wilhelm Hässler, mm. 6-8

In the Six Easy Sonatas, Hässler often uses phrase lengths of three, five, six, and seven measures, choices more typical of twentieth-century music. Using such relatively unconventional phrase lengths must have been seen as a bold approach in Hässler's late eighteenth-century context. The phrase structure of the A section of this movement (mm. 1-16) may be viewed in more than one way. One possibility is perceiving the passage as three phrases whose lengths are four, six, and six measures. Another is to divide the passage into phrases of four, four, two, two, and four measures.

To my ear, the second phrase has a sense of closure at the second eighth note of measure 8. However, the D on beat two can be heard as a link to measures 9-10, producing a six-measure phrase, rather than the standard four measures.

It is important to direct the student's attention to three main notes in the first phrase: G (the downbeat of m. 1), E (marked tenuto), and D (the last note of the phrase). Those three notes form the outline of the first phrase. This approach to organizing phrase structure can be used throughout the movement.

Excerpt 2: Sonata No. 1 from Six Easy Sonatas, Mvt. 1, by Johann Wilhelm Hässler, mm. 1-4.


In this movement, the slurred melodic second is the most frequently used figure. This figure needs to be played with a slight rubato at important points—such as the downbeat of m. 1, the downbeat of measure 2 where the melodic direction changes, and the downbeat of measure 3 that is unexpectedly followed by a short rest (see Excerpt 2). The first notes of the slurred melodic seconds require a bit heavier touch using arm weight, and the second note is played with a lighter touch. This particular playing motion, the well-known down-up wrist movement, will produce a subtle rubato and a slight separation between the repeated pitches.

The slurred melodic seconds sometimes appear in one hand as a duet in parallel thirds or parallel sixths. Whenever possible, I recommend using finger changes when moving from the second third or sixth of the first group to the first notes of the new group. Everyone can play the parallel thirds with finger changes, but the parallel sixths cannot be managed by players with small hands. They will want to use a fingering of 5-1, 4-1 in mm. 3, 15-16, and 27-28 (see m. 3 in Excerpt 2).


The first movement starts with an accompanied solo melody line in the first two measures, which changes to harmonic thirds in measures 2 and 3, and then to harmonic sixths in measure 3. The opening phrase is developed throughout the B section (mm. 17-32). In mm. 25-28 the harmonic intervals expand from thirds to sixths as they approach a climax. An unexpected decrease in dynamics occurs at the end of measure 27 just before the climax. At the summit of the climax (end of m. 28) the melody dramatically returns as a forte solo line.

Pitch disagreements appear in the three published editions of this sonata. From the last sixteenth note of measure 10 to the sixth sixteenth note of measure 11, the original edition (Keyser, 1780) and the Peters Edition (edited by Erich Doflein, 1952) print an octave unison passage. The Litolff Edition (edited by Hugo Riemann, c. 1889) prints the left hand a sixth below the right hand's melody. I find the parallel sixths more interesting, and sixths are stylistically consistent with the rest of the movement, in which all sixteenth notes in two voices proceed either in thirds or sixths. Nonetheless, it probably is best to try out both versions and then make your choice.

Second movement

Several characteristics often found in the music of C. P. E. Bach appear in this movement: an improvisational style employing interruptions of the musical flow, frequent and sometimes sudden dynamic changes, thick textures, and rhythmic variety.


In contrast to the first and third movements, this movement is through-composed, giving the listener the impression of an improvisation. However, Hässler planned his structure carefully. For instance, in measures 16-22, the bass line moves as follows; Ab-G-D-Eb-D-C-Bb-A-G-F#. This long, mostly stepwise, bass line supports chordal, three-part chorale, and polyphonic writing within the span of seven measures, providing a fine example of the way Hässler disguises his organizational skill beneath his improvisational surface.


The dynamic markings in this movement are quite detailed, which was not always the case in keyboard music from the 1780s. Frequently, the dynamic changes from measure to measure. In measure 2, the right hand and left hand have different dynamics. In measure 13, the rarely used indication pf means the dynamic gradually increases. Measure 23 contains three different dynamic markings. On the downbeat of measure 27 an explosive event occurs when the thickest chord (eight notes) in the sonata is played ff, the only request for this volume level in the entire sonata (see Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: Sonata No. 1 from Six Easy Sonatas, Mvt. 2, By Johann Wilhelm Hässler, mm. 25-28


The variety of dynamics is not the only striking expressive element that stands out in this movement; articulation is also significant. In the Peters edition, a wedge sign is consistently used in all six sonatas to indicate staccato. This does not necessarily mean that the wedge sign indicates an extremely short staccato. The length and quality of staccato notes will depend upon the musical context. In assessing these situations the guidance of the teacher is very important. One such situation occurs in measure 28. The last note of this movement has a staccato mark. While the bass is sustained, the right hand strikes the last note sharply within a piano dynamic. The question is how short and sharp, a topic for a fun discussion between teacher and pupil. In this case, if played precisely as notated, pedaling can also be a challenge. I recommend releasing the pedal to observe the sixty-fourth-note rest to produce clear articulation with no hint of blurring.

In measure 13, beat one, upper staff, the rhythmic notation is unclear. Inserting a thirty-second rest after the F in the alto voice clarifies this situation.

In measure 2, a dotted line and a slur are notated above the D in the upper staff. This notation indicates a Bebung, an effect achieved by depressing a key(s) and shaking the hand either vertically or laterally to produce a vibrato on the note(s). This effect was possible on the clavichord, but cannot be produced on the modern piano.

Third movement

A tempo must be chosen that allows time for a clean execution of the mordant on the first note of the movement. I suggest 160 to 168 to the eighth note. In this tempo, the movement's two moments of Haydnesque humor, the prolongation of the part in the left hand in measure 12 (see Excerpt 4) and the surprise thirty-second notes in the right hand in m. 42 are not rushed, yet not too slow.

Excerpt 4: Sonata No. 1 from Six Easy Sonatas, Mvt. 3, by Johann Wilhelm Hässler, mm. 8-16.


Only one passage, measures 13-14, could be puzzling in terms of articulation (see Excerpt 4). At the end of this scale passage, a slur is placed over the last five notes. The slur seems to imply a more connected touch than the notes preceding it. However, Classical-era performance practice sources do not give ironclad rules about playing scale passages that are notated without slurs. Two options are available: play the whole passage legato, or play the unslurred notes with a lighter touch but do not attempt a completely staccato execution. The sixteenth-note passagework marked dolce (mm. 25-32) invites a legato touch.


The passage in measures 5-6 requires two different techniques; the first half is a broken G-major chord and the last half is a skipping G-major chord that requires wrist rotation. In measures 13-14 (see Excerpt 4), the scale passage combines part of a D-major scale and part of a chromatic scale. The arpeggiated pattern and the scale-like passage offer two ways to improve the student's technique.

Three different textures occur in the developmental B section (mm. 17-32). Measures 17-20 employ chords in a hemiola pattern, providing a good opportunity to define this rhythmic technique for the student. The next phrase (mm. 21-24) presents a diminution of the melodic line found in measures 17-20. It also includes hocket technique, the alternation of single notes between the hands. A hocket passage, always fun to play, is one of the many joyful elements of this movement. On the last beat of measure 24 Hässler writes dolce, introducing a sudden change of mood in a typical melody-accompaniment Galant texture (see Excerpt 5).

Excerpt 5: Sonata No. 1 from Six Easy Sonatas, Mvt. 3, by Johann Wilhelm Hässler, mm. 16-24.


In this movement, Hässler again uses dynamic markings in an interesting way. However, the editor of the Peters edition inserted two dynamic markings not found in the 1780 edition. At the opening of the movement, mf is indicated and placed in parentheses to show that it is an editorial suggestion. A p dynamic marking appears in the last two measures of the movement. Since this is not in the original edition, it should also have been placed in parentheses.

Storytelling (Interpretation)

This movement is the easiest in this sonata, and could be assigned separately to younger intermediate students. Often such students can relate better to a new piece if a storyline is developed for the composition. I will offer one possible narrative.

In Section A (mm. 1-16), Child A is dancing happily and spins around in the arpeggiated pattern in measures 5-6. At the upbeat to measures 13-14, child A steps back to get ready to run gradually faster, leading to a big jump from the end of measure 14 to a graceful landing on the downbeat of measure 15 for the final cadence in measures 15-16 (see Excerpt 4).

Child B liked child A's dancing, and responds with its magic show, trying to impress Child A. The magic show starts at the B section (mm. 17-32). A bird flies out from behind a black cloth with wings flapping (mm. 17-20, see Excerpt 5) represented by the ascending two-note groups. Colorful paper flowers fall down from the magic cloth (mm. 21-24, see Excerpt 5) where sixteenth notes alternate between the hands. Finally, the two children dance delightfully together at the dolce passage (mm. 25-32).

The A1 section (mm. 33-48) is almost identical with the A section. Child A starts over, dancing with more enthusiasm and more confidence at a forte dynamic and tries a challenging high jump at measure 43 during the fortissimo thirty-second-note flourish. Each child now has a good impression of the other and they will become good friends.

1Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809) was an Austrian musician and the teacher (briefly) of Beethoven.
2Josephine von Aurnhammer (1758-1820) was a Viennese pianist and one of Mozart's first students in Vienna.
3Einstein, Alfred. (1962). Mozart: His Character, His Work. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 131.
4Graham, Edward E. (1974). A Study and Edition of Six Keyboard Sonatas of Johann Wilhelm Hässler (1779) (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, p. 24. Here Graham quotes a letter cited by Aloys Moiser in his Annales de la Musique et des Musicines en Russie au XVIII Siecle (Geneva: Mont-Blanc, 1950), pp. 596 and 660.

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