In commemoration of the Bicentenary of Franz Joseph Haydn’s death in 1809, Florilegium is presenting a series of three concerts at the Wigmore Hall.  The programmes will focus primarily on his “London” symphonies as arranged for flute, string quartet and fortepiano by the celebrated 18th-century concert impresario, violinist and composer Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815).  Additionally, three string quartets from Haydn’s little known and youthful Op.17 as well as a taste of divertissements in the Op.38 trios for flute, violin and cello will be performed.  The programme notes for this evening’s concert will explore Haydn’s indelible imprint on the string quartet genre.

String quartet literature conjures up the titans of music history: sublimely perfect Mozart, seismic Beethoven, harmonically ambiguous Schubert, full-bodied Brahms and intensely gripping Bartok.  However, these composers would have uniformly acknowledged that the quartet form was first pursued, developed and championed by Franz Joseph Haydn.  In the large catalogue of Haydn’s string quartets, scholarship often overlooks his point of departure, namely the early quartets of Op.9 and Op.17.  Young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart keenly observed musical ideas of superior expression, which were already present in these works:  a copy of the earliest manuscript of the Op.17 parts in the monastery of the Sacred Cross in Augsburg, Germany has entries along the margin in his hand.  These clear signs of his interest attest to the value this new medium Haydn had introduced to the public.  Later Mozart commented, “I have learnt from [Haydn] how one should write a quartet.”

During the eight destitute years in which Haydn tempted his fate as a fairly obscure composition student in Vienna, the trusted guidance of a mentor eluded him.  Instead, he educated himself in counterpoint by diligently reading and marking notes in texts on the fundamentals of counterpoint by Fux and Mattheson.  He would rewrite every example of Mattheson’s Der vollkommene Kapellmeister within the confines of the given musical framework, but always invented his own melodies.  During the days, he traipsed around giving music lessons to children or noble young ladies, and in the evenings taught himself the rules of composition.  He later recalled these lonely moments of self-education somewhat nostalgically: “…when I sat at my old, worm-infested klavier, I envied no King in all his wealth.”  His material output was displayed in the musical serenades in the Viennese streets where, “night music may be given by a trio or a quartet of wind instruments, and works of some extent may be played.” His pieces quickly became popular amongst the public for their originality of ideas and freedom of spirit.  Haydn’s early years as a budding composer in the Imperial Kaiserstadt directly coincided with chamber music’s transition from the baroque trio sonata and sinfonia or concerto a quattro into a standard work for four independent, yet inextricably linked voices of the string quartet.

A lucky and happenstance invitation by Baron Karl Joseph von Fürnberg in 1757 to compose for the aristocratic household in the summer months amounted to a turning point in the history of Western classical music.  The given forces of the four instrumentalists at hand — the Baron’s steward, the parish priest, a local cellist (some identify as the composer J.G. Albrechtsberger) and Haydn himself as violist — necessitated his first attempts to write string quartets, senza cembalo or bass.  His endeavours resulted in the Op.1 Divertimentimenti a Quattro, where the strictures of the ubiquitous baroque dance suite were eschewed for a fuller focus on self-standing movements.  In these five-movement works, the central slow movement is flanked by minuets on either side, along with the outer allegro or presto movements.  Haydn developed a texture that was clear to the listener, in which a dialogue between the instruments was lucid.  Goethe considered a string quartet’s worth by its “stimulating conversation between four intelligent people.”

In Haydn’s youthful foray into string quartets, the first violin retains most of the melodic initiative as found in the baroque trio sonata, however Haydn displays newly emancipated voices for both the viola and cello. Other contemporary composers were restricted by a lack of original material to develop ideas persuasively. They treated the four individual voices as four soloists, or as a violin concerto with uninspired accompaniment.  Similarly, a sense of a coherent architectural form was missing in the more banal style of his galant predecessors.  Writing for four independent voices that worked in a fluid way was a difficult task that Haydn overcame with what was to become characteristic flair and a deep understanding of each instrument’s intrinsic qualities.

Earlier, the 18th-century theorist and flautist Johann Joachim Quantz asserted:

A quartet, that is, a sonata for three concerted instruments
and a thorough-bass, is the real touchstone of the true
contrapuntist, as it is also an affair wherein many a one
not properly grounded in his art may come to grief.”

Haydn the craftsman began to heighten the dramatic sense of tonality within a work.  Gradually the tonic centre or “home” key of the piece gathered a force of great effect.  Presenting the tonic key in the first statement of a given movement and travelling some distance away from it became one of the nuts and bolts of classical “sonata” form. The relationships between keys and the manipulation of moving away from and returning to the central tonality gathered impetus, and also impressed upon the listener the way in which musical themes were able to grow and vary from instrument to instrument.  The importance of the second theme (or statement) and the development of the two main ideas also captured the sense of conflict and resolution within the movement.

When Haydn looked back on his life, he pinpointed the summer he spent at the Baron von Fürnberg castle, Weinzierl, near Melk in Lower Austria, as the moment when he tested his natural gifts as a self-taught composer.  While he may have heard the beginnings of the sounds and formal structure for string quartets in Vienna’s lively concert scene, he had to trust his own ideas and artistic hunches.  This dependency on himself alone for creative thought lasted throughout his life.  The Baron further recommended the young Haydn to Count Morzin’s court in 1759, his first post as a bona fide Kapellmeister.  Here, his compositional duties focussed on writing symphonies for the players at court, which resulted in a hiatus in quartet writing.  This was the first large-scale orchestra for which he composed.  He summoned his creative energies to keep the audience alert and interested in his new works.  He toyed with various sound effects such as muted strings, sudden striking chords or doubling strings with a single wind instrument for a different colour.  His artistic palette grew considerably, and this steppingstone ultimately led to the crucial and career-changing invitation to join the Esterhazy household in 1761.

Haydn became chief Kapellmeister for Prince Nicolaus in 1765, when he assumed all responsibilities for the musical activities, a very hefty list of events, productions and celebrations throughout the year.  Such an enormously busy schedule pushed his abilities considerably to write works in rapid succession.  Beyond the instrumental music, church music, operas and marionette theatre repertoire, Haydn had to favour his employer, a very enthusiastic baryton player, with concocting well over one hundred baryton trios.  Perhaps this task stimulated his fecund imagination in how best to convince a prince’s audience with a work of substance for very few players.  Without the need of a keyboard (the baryton has sympathetic strings), he could demonstrate the ever-growing independence of the cello.

His return to the string quartet form occurred in 1767 and 1771, with two sets of six quartets, Op.9 and Op.17, respectively.  The excellent first violinist of Esterhazy’s orchestra, Luigi Tomasini, may have indeed inspired these works.  Haydn recalled later no one could play his string quartets like “brother Luigi.”  As a result, in these early quartets the first violin parts are brilliant, rich, and very exposed.  The entire tessitura of the violin is on virtuosic display, along with crucial double stops and cadential pauses, harkening back to the baroque.  In spite of the majority of the musical ideas that the first violin embodies, Haydn provides engaging counterpoint amongst the lower three voices giving clear substance and support to the treble line.  In a lesser composer’s hands, these quartets could easily have become mini-violin concertos with woefully boring writing for the inner parts and bass line.

Haydn understood how to find infinite variety in the simplest germ of an idea.  How this motive surfaces and resurfaces amongst the different voices in a clear and intelligible manner gave credence to this musical form.  Allowing the four voices to agree and disagree convincingly presented many contrapuntal hurdles, which he overcame with great wit and understanding.  The four-movement structure of Opp.9 and 17 became the template for the future quartets Haydn was to compose throughout his life.  His innovative Minuets and Trios especially broke new ground.  He breathed new life into this most familiar dance by employing some of the simplest tools: pedal tones, pizzicato and octave writing between the players.  Rather than keep the pattern symmetrical, he created expectation and responded with surprise and charm.  He also allowed the music from his traditional roots such as the Ländler or Waltzes to seep into this hierarchical triple meter form.  Beethoven and Schubert picked up his lead, and pushed the form towards Scherzos of great impact and length.   The Op.17 finale movements also begin to show a desire and understanding of how to round off the works in a more significant manner.  The six Op.20 quartets, which follow closely in 1772, show his great strides in contrapuntal development with their fugal finales.  Beethoven copied out this entire set, and similarly Brahms meticulously annotated any discrepancies in his scores from the set of autograph parts that he owned.

Concerts in the 18th century did not exclusively showcase string quartet literature, as we know it today.  In fact, chamber music was kept mostly within the confines of a patron’s private apartments, where there would be very little interruption by a latecomer or perhaps a snoring member of the public, a common occurrence at the orchestral concerts.  Commissions by various aristocratic music lovers (who were also keen amateur instrumentalists) allowed the quartet oeuvre to define itself and develop over time. This patronage was recognized and appreciated, as indicated by the dedication on the title pages of the sets of string quartets.  Regular meetings in the private chambers brought composer and players together, a perfect opportunity for new works to be discovered, improved upon and discussed, discerning the endless realm of possibilities in quartet writing.

With such an assured, passionate and highly consummate musical ability, Haydn, who came from the humblest of families, rose to the greatest heights in compositional output.  The landmarks of his genius are evident, especially in the string quartet and symphonic repertoire, and are a testimony to his dedication and tenacity to a lifelong pursuit in understanding what touches the human spirit through music.

© Jennifer Morsches, 2009

All programme and CD liner notes featured here are copyright of Jennifer Morsches; any licensing to reprint or reproduce them, please contact Jennifer.

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