The string quartet hardly existed as a concept at the beginning of Joseph Haydn’s career. Earlier composers had written for the combination, but the idea of equality between the four voices without any keyboard accompaniment was new and largely pioneered by Haydn in the 1750s. Within 40 years, it had grown into an artistically ambitious genre—one in which a composer might push the limits—with a growing canon of pieces by Haydn, Mozart, and others.
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. 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 were intended for performance in social settings by connoisseurs, not necessarily virtuosos. 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.” Though this was unusually illustrious company (Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf and Johann Baptist Wanhal also being noted composers of the day), it gives a sense of the milieu in which the quartet genre grew.
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 fewer stormy 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 the chirping birds of the nickname. The Scherzo is really a minuet voiced rather low and played quietly. The trio section lifts the register and the birds flutter back in.
The slow movement, Adagio, spins an extended melody through variations that seem to yearn and wait, then fidget and ponder. The finale is a Rondo where everything is wound tight and then suddenly released in the last measures, dropping limp and dissipating to nothing.