Evolution of Style - A Journey through Haydn’s String Quartets
Sacramento Baroque Soloists
November 4 & 5, 2023
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Sacramento,
and Harrison Oaks Studio, Fair Oaks
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
Franz Joseph Haydn was born a month after George Washington and died the same year that Abraham Lincoln was born. Although none of these great figures were acquainted, living as they were in different continents, both were affected by the changes that occurred in their lifetimes.
The latter part of the 18th century was also known as the Enlightenment, and conceptions of society were changing radically. Several countries, including the United States and France, experienced revolutions that in part were based on rebellion from cultural norms. At essence was the emergence of the middle class and the eventual overthrow of the aristocracy.
Joseph Haydn was one of the last composers of the patronage system. For most of his adult life, he worked for Prince Esterhazy in what is now Austria. The castle in Eisenstadt is a glorious palace that is still visited today, and concerts are still held in some of its 126 rooms.
Despite working for the prince, and having been reasonably acquainted with nobility, Haydn was an unassuming man, known to many as “Papa Haydn” for his wig and old-fashioned values. One of his earliest biographers, Georg August Griesinger, quoted Haydn as saying: “I have associated with emperors, kings and many great people, and I have heard many flattering things from them, but I would not live in familiar relations with such persons; I prefer to be close to people of my own standing.”
Unlike Mozart, who came from an upper middle-class family and whose father encouraged him to see himself as superior and to live above his station, Haydn came from a modest home, the second of 12 children. He was sent to a choir school in Vienna at the age of six because of his beautiful voice. Apart from singing he learned clavier (keyboard instruments, including harpsichord, fortepiano and organ) and violin, Latin and arithmetic. He stayed at the school for about 10 years; then was dismissed because his voice had changed and he had pulled a prank on a classmate, chopping off the other fellow’s pigtail.
After leaving school, young Haydn, aged 18, became a freelance musician. He taught lessons and performed in orchestras. He also taught himself music theory by studying the treatises of Fux and CPE Bach. But the uncertainty of freelancing didn’t suit him and he obtained a position as Kapellmeister (music director) at the home of Count Morzin in 1757, at the age of 25.
Once he got this full time job, Haydn married. Unfortunately, the couple didn’t get along and the marriage was unhappy, producing no children and resulting in extramarital affairs on both sides. But his current position, followed shortly after by an offer from Prince Esterhazy, was very successful and he flourished. He ran the orchestra, played chamber music, wrote operas. He worked for the Esterhazy family for over 30 years, and even wrote nearly 200 works for baryton, an unusual string instrument that the prince played.
Esterhazy was in what is now Hungary, but Haydn would go to Vienna to visit his old friends. One of them was Mozart, whom he met around 1784. Each was highly regarded by the other, and Mozart dedicated six string quartets to his older friend.
The Esterhazy family owned rights to Haydn’s works until 1779, when his contract was renegotiated. Now Haydn could compose for other patrons and send his works to publishers. He became very well known throughout Europe, and since his duties at court became much lighter, he was able to travel. In 1790 he went to England, stopping in Bonn on the way to meet Beethoven, a very young man showing great promise.
Haydn made two trips to England, in 1790-1791 and 1794-1795. He was very successful putting on concerts and writing symphonies, making more money on those two trips than he had made in the previous 20 years in Esterhazy! He was even awarded an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Once he returned to Vienna he was able to finagle a part time Kapellmeister position in Esterhazy for the summers and remain in Vienna the rest of the year. In his last years he wrote some of his greatest large works, the oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, as well as six great masses and his opus 76 string quartets. Vienna had probably the richest musical atmosphere in Europe, and Haydn thrived on it, working with the best singers and instrumentalists he could find.
An interesting feature of Haydn’s return to Vienna is the change in his compositional approach. As a court employee, he had to write for church and social occasions, necessitating deadlines and speed. But by the late 18th century he was a rich man and could now think of taking his time composing and writing for posterity. His last oratorios took him over a year to write. Thus Haydn was to influence Beethoven and other composers of the Romantic period.
By 1803, Haydn was in declining health and could no longer compose. He told one of his biographers:
"I must have something to do—usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it's an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it's an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier."] Haydn smiled, the blood rushed to his face, and he said "I am really just a living clavier."
But he continued to be honored and celebrated. A year before his death, in 1808, a performance of the Creation was given in his honor. Present were Beethoven, Salieri and members of the aristocracy, who hailed him. At his funeral, Mozart’s Requiem was performed. A fitting conclusion to a great man, composer and musician, whose sense of humor, generosity and gentle temperament earned him the respect of many friends and colleagues.
3 QUARTETS BY JOSEPH HAYDN
Opus 1 #3 in D major
The string quartets we hear tonight represent the major periods in Haydn’s life. We begin with the early period: Op. 1, composed somewhere between 1757 and 1762. Haydn was in his late twenties. There are six quartets in the opus, and all but one consists of 5 movements containing 2 minuets. They are short works, with most of the figuration taking place between the two violins, with the viola and cello providing mostly accompaniment. In no. 3, most notable is the sublime first movement, Adagio, mournful and pleading, in which we hear the influence of Gluck and mid eighteenth century composers. The two Prestos sandwiching the minuets show Haydn’s already emerging preference for motivic ideas, throwing them back and forth between the different voices.
Opus 33 no 3 “The Bird” in C major, written in 1781, is the work of a mature composer. The six quartets in the set were written for the publisher Artaria. They are sometimes known as the “Russian” quartets, since their publication coincided with the grand tour of Vienna of the Russian Grand Duke, to whom the quartets were dedicated. Haydn describes them to be in a “new and special style.” What this means is not clear; however, for our purposes we can see that there are four movements, and the minuet in the second movement has been replaced by a Scherzo (“Joke”), a title that Haydn may have invented himself that was used extensively by Beethoven and Schubert in their symphonies. The last minuet used in the earlier quartet becomes a Rondo, which also became popular for finales in the early 19th century.
Looking at the quartet in more detail, we can understand the moniker, for bird-like grace notes are the theme of the first movement, along with swooping 16th notes. There is much more interplay between the instruments than in the earlier work.
The short Scherzo that follows is monophonic, written in a chordal style. This is followed by a two-voice trio, in which the violins chirp together while the lower instruments look on. After the scherzo is repeated, the following Adagio introduces a theme with two variations. In the Rondo finale the birds return, tossing the theme around, from major to minor, from key to key. Haydn jokes with us in the final coda, ending the work humorously and quietly.
Opus 76 No 2 in D minor (1796-1797)
The six quartets in opus 76 were commissioned by Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, Haydn’s last patron, who succeeded his father Anton in 1794. He summoned Haydn to return from England as a part time music director, tempting Haydn with opportunities to work with better musicians and larger forces in Esterhazy, while still allowing the composer to spend most of the year in Vienna.
Best known of these quartets is the “Quinten”, in D minor, which we hear tonight. The first movement is based on two descending 5ths written in half notes, which are contrasted by fast moving, frenzied activity in the other voices. This figure is passed through all the voices, sometimes inverted, sometimes filled in, achieving variety and unity in masterful fashion.
The other movements are no less striking. The Andante is lyrical, in which the fifths appear occasionally, especially in the second section in D major. The following Minuet (sometimes known as the Witch’s minuet) is a double canon between the two violins and the lower strings, followed by a lively trio that reflects folk music. In the finale, Haydn fully indulges his love of folk music, with syncopations, drones and even moments that sound like donkeys braying.
The composer Muzio Clementi, according to Charles Burney, said of Haydn: “When he hears any of his own pieces performed that are capricious he laughs like a fool.” Let us hope that Haydn would enjoy hearing his quartets played tonight as much as we do.
- Notes by Marion Rubinstein