Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

String Quartet in C Major, Op. 33, No. 3, Hob. III:39, “The Bird”

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission

© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019

Haydn wrote his Op. 33 quartets in 1781 for his publisher Artaria, and then ended up in a bind when he also promised them as a private subscription to a nobleman. The fault might have been with Haydn’s business practices or with the publisher, who rushed the quartets to print sooner than expected. Haydn wrote to Artaria: “It was with astonishment that I read…that you intend to publish my quartets in four weeks…Such a proceeding places me in a most dishonorable position.” Lucky for Haydn, Artaria agreed to delay the release, and he succeeded in getting paid twice, by patron and publisher.

The six Op. 33 quartets, like their predecessors, were intended for performance in social settings by appreciators of various levels of skill. In 1784, an opera singer named Michael Kelly described a dinner party that featured a string quartet:

The players were tolerable, not one of them excelled on the instrument he played…but there was a little science among them, which I dare say will be acknowledged when I name them: the first Violin—Haydn; the Second Violin—Baron Dittersdorf; the Violoncello—Vanhal; the Tenor—Mozart.

Composers all. Though this was unusually illustrious company, it gives a sense of the milieu in which the quartet genre grew. The four colleagues might well have played some of Haydn’s Op. 33 at that party, and the following year Mozart came out with a famous set of his own—dedicated, of course, to Haydn.

Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, nicknamed “The Bird,” sheds much of the drama and gloom of his middle period, showing subtler inflections and contrasts. The Allegro moderato starts with a little motor rhythm in the inner voices, the first violin takes the theme, and the cello opens up with resonance below. Grace notes suggest chirping birds without resorting to literal impression.

The Scherzo is not a true Scherzo in the later Beethovenian sense, but really a minuet voiced rather low and played quietly. The Trio lifts the register and the birds flutter back in, then the Scherzo repeats.

The slow movement, Adagio, spins an extended melody through variations that seem to yearn and wait, then fidget and ponder.

Nervous tension fills the Rondo, a taut finale where everything is wound tight, and then suddenly released in the last measures, dropping limp and dissipating to nothing.

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer