Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 76, No. 4, “Sunrise”

Program notes written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

The sunrise is in the first measures—the first violin peaks up from a gentle dissonance with a held B-flat major chord in the other three strings. And so the day begins: mostly sunny, with a chance of clouds in the slow movement.

The nickname, whether or not actually given by Joseph Haydn, is at least typical of his wit and whimsy: some of his other quartets and symphonies carry such names as “the Razor,” “the Hen,” “Drumroll,” and of course, “the Surprise.” It is worth remembering that these often weighty genres—the quartet and the symphony—had a certain lightness when they were new.

The “Sunrise” Quartet is the fourth entry in Haydn’s Op. 76, his last completed set of quartets. The 65-year-old composer wrote them around 1797 for the Hungarian count Joseph Erdödy, who kept the exclusive rights for two years until Haydn was allowed to publish them.

At the beginning of Haydn’s career, the string quartet had scarcely existed as a concept—the idea of chamber music in which the players were all equal, without a keyboard, was relatively novel. One tale has Haydn at 18 years old asked to write a piece for four humble amateurs, including a baron, his estate manager, and a country priest, resulting in his first quartet. And just 50 years later, by the turn of the 19th century, the string quartet was a sophisticated genre with nearly 100 works collectively by Haydn, Mozart, and the young Beethoven.

The “Sunrise” is a good example of this first height in string quartet writing. Its opening movement is in the common sonata-allegro form (with sections of exposition, development, and return; some of the other Op. 76 quartets break out of this established mold)—but its confident themes and facile construction show an experienced composer. The slow movement is gray and deeply felt, with an opening chorale growing into increasingly elaborate violin cadenzas. Pulsing harmonies in the inner voices and cello are reminiscent of Mozart, who had already been dead six years when Haydn wrote this quartet. Clouds part for the minuet and trio, both country dances, with drones to harmonize the latter. The finale has a charming little hop or stumble in its theme, which recurs between varying episodes—and then the quartet winds up instead of winding down, with an acce- lerando up to a nearly double-time conclusion.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.