Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Program notes for Tippet Rise Art Center
Not to be reprinted without permission
© Benjamin Pesetsky 2019
The string quartet hardly existed as a concept when Haydn first started out. Earlier composers had certainly written for two violins, viola, and cello, but the idea of equality between the voices and the specific intent for one-on-a-part performance without keyboard accompaniment were novel. The origins of Haydn’s early quartets are fuzzy, but things come into focus with his Op. 9, Op. 17, and Op. 20, all from the early 1770s. The String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4, is a compelling example of these pieces, each of which showed off new colors and shapes for the ensemble.
It is not known who commissioned or premiered the six Op. 20 quartets (sometimes called the “Sun” quartets after an early printing’s cover art), but chamber music of this type was generally intended for salon performances by members of the professional class, rather than for performance at court. In seeking Viennese patrons, Haydn found an outlet for creative impulses that had no home at Esterháza, where he was employed as Kapellmeister in the service of Prince Nikolaus I. A few years earlier, in 1765, his relationship with the prince had briefly soured, as Haydn was accused of neglecting his duties and leaving the court’s musicians and instrument collection in disarray. He was ordered to “apply himself to composition more zealously,” and especially to write works for the prince himself to perform on his favored instrument, the baryton, which was a kind of viola da gamba with an added set of harp-like strings on the back for plucking. Haydn wrote 126 pieces for this fanciful instrument, while channeling his more complex ideas into pieces like string quartets, intended for more worldly performers.
In September 1772, Charles Burney, the English music historian, visited Vienna and reported hearing “exquisite quartets by Haydn, executed in the utmost perfection.” These were most likely from Op. 20, perhaps even this D-major Quartet. “All who had any share in this concert,” Burney described, “were animated to that true pitch of enthusiasm, which, from the ardor of the fire within them, is communicated to others, and sets all around in a blaze.”
Op. 20, No. 4, is a richly-colored quartet that delights in contrasts and frequently inflects into the minor key. The Allegro opens thoughtfully in triple time—an uncommon meter for an opening movement of the era. The four instruments breathe in tandem through six-bar phrases while moving notes often come in triplets: at every level, the feeling is circular.
The slow movement, Un poco Adagio affettuoso, is a remarkable set of variations on one of Haydn’s most beautiful and ponderous melodies. The first variation fragments the theme in the second violin, scattering it in lilting off-beats. The second variation gives a version of the tune to the cello, which had grown out of its dedicated baseline role into a melodic tenor voice. The third variation returns the theme to the first violin, now filled out with running notes. The fourth variation brings back the original version of theme, now sotto voce, and extends it into a fanciful coda.
The Minuet is marked Allegretto alla zingarese, meaning “in gypsy style.” In this case, Haydn seems to be suggesting a kind of brashness for the dance. The Trio section gives the cello another featured moment.
The bright finale, Presto scherzando, treats the first violin almost like a soloist, accompanied and colored (and occasionally interrupted) by the other voices. Little touches, like trills and grace notes, make it sizzle, and then Haydn ends with a pianissimowhisper—another inspired choice.