I like bone china cups with little flowers. Seriously. When I was four or five years old, my grandma took me downtown to a pastry shop. A magic place. Large mirrors with golden frames on the walls. Dark brown furniture. A large showcase with all sorts of cakes to choose from and massive glass jars full of candy. That view, that smell… Like the French writer Marcel Proust, I had my “madeleine” moment!
With grandma at the “Kaffeehaus”
Adjacent to the shop was an elegant room painted in pastel green with golden chandeliers where elderly ladies met to chat and drink coffee or tea. Each time, grandma bought me a pastry or a piece of cake and a glass of hot chocolate. The cake would be served on white bone china plate with tiny red, blue, lilac or yellow flowers, the chocolate in a matching cup. I loved those moments and I remember them as if they had happened yesterday.
At the time I didn’t know anything about classical music and even less about the Viennese composer Joseph Haydn. But somehow my memories of the only “Kaffeehaus” in Luxembourg at the time invariably lead me to Haydn’s string quartets. Chamber music that would have perfectly matched that pastry shop. Would I have enjoyed it? Perhaps. The delicate structure of the music is comparable to the artwork on the cups and plates – and the deliciousness of the pastry.
Sweeping like a Baroque dance
Here is the piece to listen to: String Quartet in E flat, Hob. III:2, Op. 1 No. 2. So light and still sweeping. It betrays it’s origin, the Baroque dance forms, prancing music but not pretentious. Haydn wrote it between 1757 and 1762. I am aware that I have already presented some of Haydn’s string quartets from that period in an earlier post, but Haydn has written so many of them, and this one is dear to me. It has been recorded by the Angeles String Quartet.
The music publishing house G. Henle explains in its edition of the score of Op. 1 that “the Weinzierl castle in Lower Austria […] can be considered to be the birthplace of a chamber music genre, which is firmly established in our present-day repertoire. The young Haydn was invited to spend some time at this place by a wealthy musical friend and often met up with the steward at the castle, the castle priest and the cellist Anton Albrechtsberger to make music. Although his first two works for two violins, viola and bass still have five movements, their musical value establishes the success of the string quartet in its own right.”
The illusion of intimacy
What is it that made chamber music so attractive? Why is it that string quartets from Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky or Shostakovich fill me with such happiness? It probably has to do with the fact that chamber music suggests an intimacy between musicians and audience that cannot be achieved by a symphonic orchestra because of its size or by a soloist, who often is so focused on his performance that he remains distant from the listeners.
This intimacy is an illusion similar to the one suggested today by social network contacts, but it allowed artists and audiences to connect. Since most musicians and composers depended on patrons, creating this illusion time and again with new compositions and repeated performances did make sense for the artist. At the same time it satisfied the emotional need of noblemen to present themselves as cultivated people through a limited investment.
“Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion.” (Ralph W. Emerson)
© Charles Thibo