About this Recording
8.553983 - HAYDN: String Quartets Nos. 36-38

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
String Quartet in F sharp minor, Op. 50, No. 4, Hob. III: 47
String Quartet in F major, Op. 50, No. 5, Hob. III: 48
String Quartet in D major, Op. 50, No. 6, Hob. III: 49

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 subsequently spent some years earning a living as best he could from teaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to profit from association with the old composer Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn's first appointment was in 1759 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Count von Morzin, whose kinsman had once served as patron to Vivaldi. This was followed in 1761 by employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest men in the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, succeeded after his death in 1762 by Prince Nikolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly and somewhat obstructive Kapellmeister Gregor Werner, who had found much to complain about in the professionalism of his young and resented deputy, Haydn succeeded to his position, to remain in the same employment, nominally at least, 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 music for the theatre, as well as 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 and one that the English scholar Dr Burney thought to have its only proper use on a desert island, where a castaway might accompany himself.

Prince Nikolaus died in 1790 and Haydn found himself able to accept an invitation to visit London. There he provided music for concert seasons 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 with them. 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 eighteenth 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 first-movement form and complementary three or four movements, the basis now 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 name, the Divertimento, into music of greater weight, complexity and substance, 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 himself listed some 83. The earlier of these, often under the title Divertimento, proclaim clearly enough their origin and purpose. Haydn's last quartet, Opus 103, started in 1803, remained unfinished and coincided with the appearance of quartets of a new and original kind, from Haydn's recalcitrant and ungrateful pupil, Beethoven. Haydn himself once claimed to have discovered the string quartet by accident. The discovery, if such it was, has continued to have a far-reaching effect on the development of Western music.

Haydn had contemplated writing a new set of string quartets as early as 1784, but events led him to delay the composition of the six that make up the set of Opus 50 until 1787. Two years earlier Mozart had completed a set of quartets over which he had taken considerable trouble, dedicating them to Haydn, with whom he had now established friendly contact in Vienna. Mozart's quartets owe much to Haydn's example and now Haydn's new quartets have a comparable debt to Mozart. The set that constitutes Opus 50 was published by Artaria and was dedicated to King Frederick William II of Prussia, the cello-playing king for whom Mozart, after visiting Potsdam in 1789, wrote his three so-called Prussian Quartets, and whose favour Beethoven sought in his first cello sonatas in 1796. While Mozart ensures the cello a certain prominence, Haydn is very much more discreet. In publishing the set Haydn showed a degree of duplicity quite worthy of Beethoven, allowing early publication to Forster in London, anticipating the release of Artaria's edition, which should, by rights, have been made available in London through Artaria's commercial partners, Longman and Broderip.

The first of the Opus 50 set, the Quartet in B flat major, Opus 50, No. 1, opens with an Allegro in barred C time (2/2), the first time that Haydn had done so in such a movement, showing, it has been suggested, the influence of Mozart. The cello introduces the movement with a repeated B flat, which some have seen as a tribute to the King and his favoured instrument. The second subject is derived from the first and the repeated note against which the first part of the first subject is heard becomes a feature of the movement, taken up by the second and then the first violin and providing an accompanying pedal to the second subject. The repeated note introduces the central development, with its harmonic surprises, and returns as it leads, in the recapitulation, at triple speed, to the end of the movement. The E flat major Adagio is in the form of a theme and variations. The theme itself is introduced by the first violin, followed by the second. The second variation is in E flat minor, followed by a return to the original key and theme and a coda. The third movement Minuet, with motivic links with the preceding movements, frames a contrasting trio and is followed by a final Vivace, in the now usual tripartite general form, but with surprise after surprise, as the principal theme and key seem about to make their definitive return, eventually accomplished.

The Quartet in C major, Opus 50, No. 2, opens sotto voce with a first violin principal subject, marked by sudden strong accents. Antiphonal ascending scales from cello and first violin lead to the second subject and the exposition ends with a series of ascending arpeggios for the lower instruments. Contrapuntal use of the opening theme is made in the central development. The recapitulation, notably the transition from first to second subject, finds room for imaginative use of the chromatic theme, and the movement ends with a return to the cello, viola and second violin arpeggios with which the exposition had come to an end. The Adagio allows the second violin the first statement of the F major theme, then taken up by the first violin and duly embellished. The central section of the movement gives the first violin leisure to explore the higher register of the instrument, followed by a return to an elaborated version of the first material. The Minuet is characterized by a descending triadic melodic figure which finds its ascending counterpart in the contrasting trio. The opening rhythmic figure heard from second violin and viola in the Finale has an important and recurrent part in what follows, ending the exposition, starting the central development and duly providing an element of the recapitulation and final coda.

The Quartet in E flat major, Opus 50, No. 3, is overtly monothematic in its first movement, where the first violin states the first subject at the outset and is later entrusted with the second version, in the dominant key. The opening figure assumes importance in the development, which ends in a pause, after which the first theme is recapitulated in conclusion. The slow movement is in the dominant key, B flat major, and at last allows the cello the first statement of the theme, accompanied by the viola. Positions are inverted, as the theme is taken up by the first violin, accompanied similarly by the second, to be completed principally by the cello. The thematic material is exploited in B flat minor, before the return of cello and viola and further variation in rapid triplet figuration, finally underpinned by the quick repeated B flat tonic of the cello. As so often, the Minuet and Trio, themselves interrelated, include suggestions of the other movements, at least in their thematic openings. The Finale is again monothematic and allows the cello the theme, once the first violin has done with it. The opening figure has importance in the development and in all that follows, up to the hushed conclusion.

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