Joseph Haydn: String Quartet in G minor, Op. 74, No. 3, “Rider”

Written for the Tippet Rise Art Center. Not 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 String Quartet in G minor, nicknamed “Rider” for the last movement’s rollicking theme, dates from 1793 and shows the adventurousness of the 61-year-old composer. Having spent most of his career employed by the Esterházy family, he was released from his primary duties in 1790 upon the death of Prince Nicolaus, and moved to Vienna as an independent composer. Soon he was brought to London by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, where he was received as a celebrity. Back in Vienna after two successful concert seasons in England, he planned a return trip, and wrote the “Rider” in anticipation. It’s the last of six quartets he dedicated to Count Anton Georg Apponyi, who paid Haydn a fee for the privilege.

The opening Allegro leads with a firm introduction in clipped notes, where the four instruments play together. Then a moment of silence, after which the instruments stagger and overlap in faster and slower textures, followed by an amiable tune in the first violin. The second half of the movement lets the first two ideas combine and collide, before the clipped notes disappear and the violin’s tune returns.

The slow movement, Largo assai, finds itself in the distant key of E major and suggests a theme and variations—but there are only three variations rather than a whole set, and they grow longer and more elaborate as the movement goes on. The opening melody is carefully shaped to rise toward a surprise chord, and a pianissimo shimmer fuzzes into a lingering coda.

The minuet and accompanying trio section offer the traditional dance movements, while the tuneful finale reminds us that even for a composer working in the cosmopolitan centers of 18th-century Europe, the countryside was never far away—and the string quartet was a medium for both contemplative expression and visceral thrills.

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.