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Music for Major Statements

The MHS Review 236 Vol. 3, No. 2 March 5, 1979

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Steven Packer

Everyone concedes the astonish­ing growth of Beethoven experienced in the 25 years between his first and last quartets. To compare them and to discover the development of an entirely new world of emotional depth is one of the miracles of music. But is the distance traversed by Haydn between 1755 and 1772 any less awesome?


Got a few minutes to cover the history of Haydn's string quartets? Give us 2000 words, we'll give you the foundation of chamber music. And 17 years will just fly right by.

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Since the late eighteenth century, the string quartet has been a medium which composers consistently chose for their major statements. One has only to think of the string quartets of Beethoven, Dvorak, Bartok, and Schonberg. They truly occupy a central position in these composers' output and summarize their compositional develop­ment and scope. What the combination of two violins, viola, and cello lacks in orchestral volume and variety of color, is more than compensated for by the clarity with which intricate designs can be presented and by an intimacy which makes possible expression of the greatest depth. Indeed, many music-lovers consider the string quartet the summit of musical art. Hermann Abert, the renowned musician and musicologist, characterized the string quar­tet as an artistic category which "detached from all material attractions aims at a pure ideal, not at spaciousness and breadth but rather at profoundness, an art which lays bare the most delicate threads not attainable by other instrumental combinations.''

Naturally, this lofty art form did not come into being quickly. It was developed gradually and by no means independently from the main currents of musical history flowing in the 1720's and 1760's. For a long time Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was con­sidered the "Father of the Symphony" as well as the "Father of the String Quartet." Both of these once popular notions, however, have been disproved by systematic musico­logical research carried out in Germany, Austria, Italy, France and England, after the First World War. But these scientific results do not diminish Haydn's artistic stature a bit. His historic significance does not shrink because it has been ascertained that symphonies were written before he penned his first symphonic opus, and that string quartets were produced before he tried his hand at this type of composition. It appears to have been Haydn's historic mission to achieve the synthesis of the technical attainments of his predecessors and contem­poraries. Haydn took the fledgling symphony and string quartet and transformed them into major forms which composers up to the present day have found suitable for their highest artistic expression.

In the world of music, the period 1720 to 1760 was one of great experiment, ferment and turmoil. It marked a period of transition from the baroque to the classical. The old baroque ensemble, dominated by a top voice and a very active bass line (the so-called basso continuo) was breaking up and being replaced by a texture combination consisting of a melodic top voice with light chordal support in the lower parts. The baroque ideal of an aria or instrumental movement expressing a single emotional state gave way to an ideal of contrast, with individual movements and even individual melodies showing wide emotional fluctuation. It was a period of heated philosophical and aesthetic debate--"which is more important, reason or intuition?; should art be light and refined or should it express significant emotional and philosophical content?" Many new types of musical composition emerged during this time. Needless to say, there was much that was experimental, even freakish, and which was subsequently rejected as the classified style coalesced and matured toward the later years of the eighteenth century. Out of this welter of artistic trends emerged the symphony and the string quartet.

The earliest string quartets and sym­phonies date from the 1730's. Many of the string quartets from this period were simply symphonies or concerti grossi that compos­ers or publishers specified as being playable by two violins, a viola and cello or bass if more musicians were not present. (As early as 1720 Alessandro Scarlatti authorized the performance of some of his concerti grossi as quartets. The symphonies for strings by Giovanni Battista Sammartini, Baldassare Galuppi, and Giuseppe Tartini were often called sonate a quattro and performed by one player to a part.) Though not mandatory, a harpsichord was usually used to double the bass line and fill in harmonies. This was a hold over from baroque practice and often found desirable in view of the thin texture and insignificance of the second violin and the viola parts in these early quartet-sym­phonies. This then, was the character of the string quartet when Haydn came on the scene--it was light and thin textured music indistinguishable in character from the orchestral music of the period.

Haydn composed his first string quartets (two sets of six quartets each) in the years 1755-60. These sets were published in 1765 as Haydn's Opus 1 (2023 editor's note: Hob.III:1–6) and Opus 2, (2023 editor's note: Hob.III:7-12) but the opus numbers are misleading since Haydn had composed numerous keyboard pieces prior to 1755, and by the time the quartets were published he had already composed several concerti, about 20 symphonies and many works for church and theatre.

During the years in which the Quartets Opus 1 and Opus 2 were written, Haydn was in the service of the Baron von Furnberg. According to Carpani, an early Haydn chronicler, the Baron, pleased with six of Haydn's trios performed at his castle, urged him to try his hand at quartets. The Baron enjoyed chamber music and considered it an excellent way to entertain his guests. He provided for daily ensemble music to be performed by the following instrumentalists: Haydn (violin) then only in his early twenties, a cellist named Albrechtsberger (possibly a relative of Beethoven's teacher), and two other members of the estate who were not professional musicians, one a cleric, the other his administrator.

The pleasant and relaxed atmosphere of the Baron's chamber music gatherings can easily be imagined when one listens to these earliest of Haydn's quartets. Like most of the quartets of this period they are light, entertaining pieces which make no great emotional demands on tne listener. The first violin dominates with the lower instruments providing a harmonic accompaniment.

The form of these quartets is the same as that of the divertimenti of the period. There are five movements: fast, minuet, slow, minuet, fast. As in the divertimenti, the central movement is usually a songful aria for solo violin with delicate background by the other instruments. In fact, because of their light character and their overall form, Haydn called the quartets Opus 1 and Opus 2 'Divertimenti' in the catalog which he started in 1765.

So we see Haydn, in his first twelve quartets, continuing the fashion of his contemporaries and immediate predeces­sors. His quartets are light in scoring and feeling and are indistinguishable from divertimenti, just as quartets of other composers previously mentioned are indis­tinguishable from the symphonies and concerti grossi of that time.

Haydn's next set of quartets, his Opus 9, (editor's note: Hob.III:19-24) appeared in 1768 after a gap of almost ten years. During this time Haydn's career developed from that of talented journeyman to established master. In 1761 he was engaged at one of the richest courts in Europe, that of the Esterhazy princes of Austria-Hungary, and in 1766 he became director of music at that court. (He was to occupy this position uninterruptedly for 25 years until he "retired" to travel widely and write the magnificent Salomon symphonies.) By 1766 his works were being heralded in the Vienna journals; by 1770 his fame was international and unscrupulous publishers were busy palming off the works of third-rate composers under Haydn's name in order to improve their sales.

This is one subject on which the concierge will have to keep an eye on the word count. Haydn's string quartets are among this writer's most beloved compositional statements, and as a group they offer fulfillment on the scale of reading Shakespeare's comedies, or the short stories of John Cheever, or watching the entire first season of The Sopranos.

This essay focuses in on the years 1755-1772, so we're going to confine ourselves to the works up to Op. 33. Well..we're not. But we will try and keep it related to that time period.

On an all encompassing subject, it's best to define our rules. In trying to offer some advice on where to start, it usually starts with the performers - the actual "string quartet" ensemble, and not necessarily the work. There are so many string quartets here (each of the opus' described normally contain at least 6 quartets) that picking one out, or a movement, it just too crazy, like finding one element in a huge painting.

There are so many recordings and so many approaches, that you almost certainly can find one that suits your tastes.

We'll start with some quartets that recorded the entire set of Haydn string quartets:

  • Angeles String Quartet - for many years, a touchstone in recording history. Not just one of the first complete sets, but a real testimony to exceptional recording standards and performance standards. Looking for something that is uniformly excellent throughout, you can't go wrong with this set.

  • Aeolian String Quartet - you might be looking at the English equivalent of the above, as the Aeolian recordings were made about 10 years earlier than the Angeles, and they have a touch more stodginess about them, but not enough to make you throw it out, just a few minor offenses. The label, Decca, seems to have an odd relationship with these performances, they let them disappear for a decade or so. Who knows why.

Now that we've covered the heavy hitters who showed their real grit and recorded EVERY quartet, let's take a quick run through some of the brand name and non-brand names who have left a superb recorded legacy that pay particular attention to the quartets described in this essay.

  • The ProArte Quartet - a good, supportable place to start. Recordings made in the 1950s and 60s, still sound good and whose critical reputation has withstood decades of critics endless writings about Haydn. And though they never completed their cycle, they didn't just run off and start with the late quartets and forget about the early - it looks like they did just the opposite. The earlier quartets are all represented, but the later works are not.

  • The Lindsey Quartet - the English press doth love these performances, and they are fantastic. They don't blot out the sun, as some of the books might suggest (Penguin Guide covers the whole cycle to the detriment of almost every other quartet). But so what, let them have their moment. An excellent performance of Op. 20, as discussed in this essay.

  • Cuarteto Casals - let's give a group that started in this century/millenium a chance. If you do spend some time listening to these other performances, expect and wonder if these performers aren't on some mood altering substances, at least, some seriously good caffeine, because tempos are considerable faster and the approach is more lively.

Haydn's musical development in the period 1760-1768 was equally significant. When viewing the great advances made in the six quartets Opus 9 over the quartets Opus 1 and 2, we must be aware not only of the numerous symphonies and concerti he composed during those intervening years, but also of the production of approximately fifteen string trios as well. (The exact number and chronology of these trios is still open to question). These trios in their increased complexity seem to be preparatory studies for the Opus 9 set.

The quartets Opus 9 mark the beginning of the idiomatic quartet style. In four movements, fast, minuet, slow, fast, they already carry much more weight than the loquacious, entertaining divertimento-quar­tets of Opus 1 and 2. Instead of the light breezy opening fast movements of these early divertimento-quartets, the first move­ment of the Opus 9 set form the musical center-weights of their respective quartets. These first movements contain a profusion of contrasting designs, strong dramatic ges­tures, and more interplay of motivic material between the lower three parts than is found in Opus 1 and 2. The subsequent movements in each of the Opus 9 quartets also show a tendency to increased activity in the lower parts, though they are still light in character.

With the sets of quartets Opus 17 (1771, Editor's Note: Hob.III:25-30) and Opus 20 (1772, Editor's Note: Hob.III:31-36), the serious, complex character of the string quartet is decisively established. Increased dimensions and interplay of motivic ideas between instru­ments present in first movements of Op. 9 are found now in slow movements and in finales as well. In fact, the final movements of three of the quartets Op. 20 (nos. 2, 5, 6) are large scale fugues. Throughout these sets, viola and cello are entrusted with melodies to a degree unknown in earlier quartets. In Opus 20 quartets in particular there is an intensification of drama and seriousness. This can be heard in the somber character of Opus 20, No. 5, in F minor and the dramatic silences and outbursts that occur throughout Op. 20 No. 4, in D major.

With Haydn's Opus 17 and Opus 20 sets, the string quartet is freed completely from the rigidity of layout and texture which characterized the previous efforts of other composers. Gone is the steadily active, basso-continuo that is still seen in the works of some of Haydn's contemporaries; gone is the unrelieved, light top-voice dominated style of Haydn's earlier works. These are replaced by a variegated texture. The listener is aware of a constantly changing texture, and cannot sit back and let a continuous stream of sound wash over the ears. Now too, the quartets are completely freed from stylistic dependence on the symphony, divertimento, or any other ensemble music.

All that remains for the complete formation of the string quartet style is for Haydn to fully realize the possibilities of complex motivic treatment that are already suggested in the quartets Opus 9, 17, and 20. This he does in the quartets Opus 33 which were published in 1782, but which are probably the product of several years of creative effort.

The evolution of the quartet from such small unassuming pieces as Haydn's Opus 1 and 2 to the complicated and substantial structures of Opus 17 and 20 seems incredible. Everyone concedes the astonish­ing growth of Beethoven experienced in the 25 years between his first and last quartets. To compare them and to discover the development of an entirely new world of emotional depth is one of the miracles of music. But is the distance traversed by Haydn between 1755 and 1772 any less awesome?

Steven Packer is working on his Ph.D. in musicology at CUNY, and is a professional cellist.

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