Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

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’s six Op. 20 quartets (sometimes called the “Sun” quartets after an early printing’s cover art) were finished in 1772 and published in 1774, intended for the salons of Viennese connoisseurs, his main creative outlet beyond the Esterházy court where he worked as kapellmeister. In September 1772, the English music historian Charles Burney visited Vienna and reported hearing “exquisite quartets by Haydn, executed in the utmost perfection,” probably from Op. 20. “All who had any share in this concert,” he 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.”

The D-major quartet is richly colored, delighting in contrasts and frequently inflecting into minor despite its major key. The Allegro opens 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, while the third variation returns the theme to the first violin, now filling it out with running notes. The fourth variation brings back the original version of theme sotto voce, and extends it into a fanciful coda.

The Minuet is marked Allegretto alla zingarese, meaning “in gypsy style.” The finale, Presto scherzando, treats the first violin almost like a soloist, accompanied, colored, and occasionally interrupted by the other voices. Little touches, like trills and grace notes, make it sizzle, and then Haydn ends with a pianissimo whisper.

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.