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ClassicsOnline Home » HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 54, Nos. 1- 3
"Haydn's String Quartets by the Kodaly Quartet are wonderful"
Joseph Haydn (1732 -1809)
String Quartets Op. 54, Nos. 1 - 3
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 1759 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 Esterházy, 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.
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 string quartets of Opus 54
open the first 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 Haydn symphonies, transactions 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 the 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. Haydn dedicated to Tost a second set of six quartets, Opus 64, in 1790,
and Mozart wrote for him his last two string quintets.
The three Opus 54 quartets were
completed by the autumn of 1788, when Tost left for Paris. The first, in the
key of G major, opens with a cheerful movement based on its initial theme
played by the first violin. The C major Allegretto serves as a slow movement
exploring the higher range of the first violin and leading to a characteristic
Minuet and Trio and a rapid and varied Finale.
The second of the set, Opus 54 No.2 in
C major, opens boldly with a movement that once again takes the first
violin to unexpected heights. The C minor slow movement provides decorative
embellishment for the first violin and leads directly, without a pause, to a Minuet
that was well enough liked at Esterháza to be used for a musical clock made by
the Esterháza librarian, Pater Primitivus Niemecz. The Trio is again in C
minor. The quartet ends with an original movement that opens and closes with an
Adagio, but includes a rapid section, interrupted by sudden pauses, typical of
Haydn's liking for the unexpected.
Opus 54 No.3, in E major,
has a dazzling first movement. The second movement Largo cantabile uses
intricate and rapid ornamentation and is succeeded by a rhythmically marked
Minuet and contrasting Trio. The final movement allows the second violin to
announce the principal theme in a sonata-rondo structure, its recapitulation
marked by Haydn's love of musical surprises.
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 Oevich, were
formerly in the Sebestyán 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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HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 54, Nos. 1- 3