Are you looking for some pleasant, unobtrusive and straightforward classical music? Try Joseph Haydn’s string quartets. Haydn is competing with Franz Xaver Richter, whom we have met in a post in April, for the title of “Father of the String Quartet”. Haydn has written more than 80 quartets, and you really have the choice. Where should I begin? I have no idea. The Angeles String Quartet has recorded them all, and I shall point out some as I listen to them over the course of several days. And I will let you discover those I have left out on your own.
Entertainment married to education
Here are a few ideas on String Quartet in E flat, Hob. II:6 Op. 1 No. 0. Five movements: presto, menuetto, adagio, menuetto, presto. Very classical. Very German, I am tempted to say, but Haydn was a citizen of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. I can easily imagine a pleasant late summer afternoon in the castle of Prince Paul Anton von Esterhazy’s in Eisenstadt: The sun is shining through the large window panes, bathing in a mild light the ensemble led by Haydn while it is playing for the count and his family. All are seated in golden Baroque chairs, listening attentively to the musicians, entertainment married to education.
The chamber musicians might also perform String Quartet in A, Hob III:7 Op. 2 No. 1. Light-footed, but not frivolous, more than just enjoyable music, it has a certain depth. Take the second movement with its delicate pizzicato* and the solemn third movement. Marvelous! The two mentioned quartets are part of the “Fürnberg Quartets” written between 1757 and 1760, before Haydn entered the service of the Esterhazys. Haydn had dedicated these pieces to the Austrian nobleman Hans-Josef von Fürnberg. At the end of each quartet, the musicians would bow, the prince would applaud and say perhaps: “Please, play Us something that We haven’t heard yet. Something fresh, something new.”
The prince plays the baritone
And Haydn would bow again and say: “I am honored to present to you a string quartet in F.” Anthony van Hoboken, a Dutch musicologist who set up a catalog of all of Haydn’s works, would later attribute the number Hob III:24 Op. 9 No. 6 to that piece. Haydn composed it between 1766 and 1775. Prince Nikolaus, Paul Anton’s brother and successor, would certainly have liked this piece. He played the baritone, a cello-like instrument with six main strings and 18 reverberating strings.
The first movement is vigorous, melodious, while the second – the minuet – is a little more gentle than the first one. According to the French musicologist Marc Vignal, the first two movements are exceptionally well done, while the last two lack a little of substance to be in a balance with the first two. All in all, I truly like this piece and I am not in a position to judge whether Vignal is right. Nor do I believe that it is important.
Traveling to London and back
In 1790, Haydn jumped on an occasion to move to London. Prince Nikolaus had died that year, and his heir was not interested in music. At the same time, London was the place to be. Science progressed by quantum leaps, the industrial revolution was looming. Around the time he moved to London, Haydn wrote the String Quartet in D major, Hob. III:63 Op. 64 No.5, called “The Lark”. Apparently it is very popular – I didn’t know that – because of the “Lark Theme” that you can hear in the first movement from bar 8 on and which, according to Vidal, is unique among the arrangements for string quartets.
In July 1792, the Esterhazy family called the composer back to Vienna. Mozart had died seven months earlier, Beethoven was not yet there – the capital of the Empire was lacking a composer of international fame! Haydn headed back for two years and composed in 1793, among other works, the String Quartet in G minor, Hob. III:74 Op. 74 No. 3, called “The Horseman”. The origin of the name is unclear, it might have derived from the octave leaps in the first eight bars. Anyway, it is beautiful and I hope you will enjoy it.
With his string quartets, Haydn has given humanity many, many hours of lovely chamber music. I tried to pick a few works that are representative of different periods in Haydn’s life. And with that, you are on your own. Haydn? High five!
© Charles Thibo