About this Recording
8.550397 - HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 55, Nos. 1 - 3

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in A Major, Op. 55, No.1, Hob. III: 60
String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 55, No.2, Hob. III: 61
String Quartet in B Flat Major, Op. 55, No.3, Hob. III: 62

Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau in 1732, the son of a wheelwright. Trained at the choir-school of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna, he spent some years earning a living as best he could from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to learn from the old musician Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn's first appointment was in 1739 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count von Morzin. This was followed in 1761 by employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest men in the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, succeeded after his death in 1762 by Prince Nikolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly and somewhat obstructive Kapellmeister, Gregor Werner, Haydn succeeded to his position, to remain in the same employment for the rest of his life.

On the completion of the magnificent palace at Esterháza, in the Hungarian plains under Prince Nikolaus, Haydn assumed command of an increased musical establishment. Here he had responsibility for the musical activities of the palace, which included the provision and direction of instrumental music, opera and theatre music, and music for the church. For his patron he provided a quantity of chamber music of all kinds, particularly for the Prince's own peculiar instrument, the baryton, a bowed string instrument with sympathetic strings that could also be plucked.

On the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790, Haydn was able to accept an invitation to visit London, where he provided music for the concert season organized by the violinist-impresario Salomon. A second successful visit to London in 1794 and 1795 was followed by a return to duty with the Esterházy family, the new head of which had settled principally at the family property in Eisenstadt, where Haydn had started his career. Much of the year, however, was to be spent in Vienna, where Haydn passed his final years, dying in 1809, as the French armies of Napoleon approached the city yet again.

Haydn lived during the period of the 18th century that saw the development of instrumental music from the age of Bach and Handel to the era of the classical sonata, with its tripartite form, the basis of much instrumental composition. The string quartet itself, which came to represent classical music in its purest form, grew from a genre that was relatively insignificant, at least in its nomenclature, the Divertimento, into music of greater weight, substance and complexity, although Haydn, like any great master, knew well how to conceal the technical means by which he achieved his ends. The exact number of string quartets that Haydn wrote is not known, although he listed some 83. The earlier of these, often under the title Divertimento, proclaim their origin and purpose. The last quartet, opus 103, started in 1803 remained unfinished.

The string quartets of opus 55 form the second three of a set of half a dozen quartets dedicated to the violinist Johann Tost, a man who led the second violins in Haydn's orchestra at Esterháza from 1783 until his departure for Paris in 1788, although he is mentioned as Music Director for the Seipp theatre company in Pressburg (the modern Bratislava) in the previous year. In Paris he sold for publication the six quartets of opus 54 and opus 55 and two new symphonies, transaction that seem to have caused some trouble. He had in any case, during his time at Esterháza, suggested a lucrative scheme for pirating compositions belonging to the Prince. He later returned to Vienna, and in 1790 married a housekeeper in the service of Prince Esterházy, becoming a prosperous cloth-merchant. Nine years later we hear of his approach to Spohr with suggestion that he buy exclusive rights over his chamber music compositions for a period of three years, so that frequent performances, particularly of chamber music, would allow him entry to the best houses in Vienna, where Spohr's chamber music might be performed, and facilitate business contacts, when he travelled. Spohr agreed to the proposal and the sliding scale of fees offered, rising according to the number of instruments written for. The immediate result was two string quartets and the Nonet.

This first set of string quartets for Johann Tost was written in 1777 and 1778. The Quartet in A major, Op. 55, No.1, starts with a forthright theme that at once establishes the tonality. This is linked to the second theme of a traditionally tripartite sonata-form movement by a triplet passage. In the slow movement the entry of the first violin is delayed, and the second violin allowed to announce the principal theme in a lower register. The Minuet, characteristic of Haydn, is contrasted with a Trio that takes the first violin to dizzy heights and leads to a finale which, in its contrapuntal features, suggests the influence of Mozart, whose string quartets dedicated to him Haydn had so much admired.

The String Quartet in F minor, Op. 55, No.2, in sometimes known as The Razor. The origin of the title lies not in the music but in an anecdote relating to the visit to Esterháza of the English music publisher John Bland. Haydn, shaving with a poor razor, is supposed to have exclaimed that he would give his best quartet for a pair of decent razors. Bland is said to have hurried back to his lodgings and returned with a pair of English razors, to be rewarded with the Quartet in F minor. The work opens with a set of double variations on themes in F minor and F major. The second movement, an F minor Allegro, has its surprises in sudden silences and changes of tonality, and ends in F major. This key is continued in the following Minuet, which allows the viola a brief moment of glory, in duet with the first violin, before the material is redistributed among the four instruments. The repeated Minuet frames an F minor Trio and the quartet ends with a brilliant finale.

The last of the opus 55 quartets, in B flat major, opens with all four players in unison, before each takes his own harmonic path. The E flat Adagio allows the first violin ornate decoration in its central section. It is followed by a cheerful Minuet and Trio and a dashing final movement.

Kodály Quartet
The members of the Kodály Quartet were trained at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy, and three of them, the second violin Tamás Szabo, viola-player Gábor Fias and cellist János Devich, were formerly in the Sebestyen Quartet, which was awarded the jury's special diploma at the 1966 Geneva International Quartet Competition and won first prize at the 1968 Leo Weiner Quartet Competition in Budapest. Since 1970, with the violinist Attila Falvay, the quartet has been known as the Kodály Quartet, a title adopted with the approval of the Hungarian Ministry of Culture and Education. The Kodály Quartet has given concerts throughout Europe, in the Soviet Union and in Japan, in addition to regular appearances in Hungary both in the concert hall and on television.

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