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ClassicsOnline Home » HAYDN: String Quartets Nos. 23, 24 and 27, 'Sun Quartets'
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)
String Quartets Op. 20, Nos. 4 -6 "Sun Quartets"
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 Esterházy, succeeded on his death in 1762 by his brother 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, nominally at least, for the rest of his life.
On the completion of the magnificent palace at Esterháza, in the Hungarian plains under the new Prince, 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 so called Sun Quartets, Opus 20, were written in 1772 and published two years later. They form an important stage in the development of the form, which now assumes full maturity. Musical interest is divided now more equally between the four instruments, while the fugal finales of three of the quartets offer a new solution to the relative weighting of the movements, although this procedure was not one that Haydn later followed.
The Quartet in D major, the fourth of the set, is marked by the opening rhythmic figure. The D minor second movement is in the form of a theme and four variations. The first of these is a syncopated version of the theme for the second violin. The second variation hands the theme to the cello and the third offers an elaborated version of the theme to the first violin, which then returns to the theme in simpler form. The third movement, a Minuet and Trio, uses a theme in gypsy mood, with marked off-beat accents in the Minuet and a moving cello accompaniment to the Trio. The final movement, marked Presto scherzando, provides a brilliant and rapid conclusion.
The Quartet in F minor, Opus 20 No.5, entrusts the melodic burden to the first violin in its opening movement. The dance movement is placed second, with a Minuet framing, in repetition, a contrasting F major Trio. The same key is used for the gently lilting Adagio, with its increasingly embellished theme developed by the first violin. The last movement is described as a Fugue with two subjects, in fact a characteristic opening subject stated first by the second violin, followed by viola, first violin and cello. Towards the end of this movement of some contrapuntal ingenuity the theme appears in canon between first violin and cello.
The last quartet of the set, in A major, has a first violin part of particular interest, with its use of double stopping in the first movement codetta and coda. The slow movement, placed second, offers an E major theme, stated by the first violin and later embellished. The Trio of the third movement Minuet provides the first violin with a melody to be played sotto voce on the G string, accompanied only by viola and cello, each using only the lowest string. The last movement is described as a Fugue with three subjects, more accurately, in modern terminology, a double fugue with a single countersubject, as recent scholars have pointed out. The second thematic element is provided first by the second violin, which accompanies the first violin statement of the fugal subject with a descending scale. Towards the end of the movement the subject returns in inverted form from each instrument.
The members of the Kodály Quartet were trained at the Budapest Ferenc Liszt Academy, and three of them, the second violinist Tamás Szabó, viola-player Gábor Fias and cellist János Devich, were formerly in the Sebestyén 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 then Soviet Union and in Japan, in addition to regular appearances in Hungary both in the concert hall and on television and has made for Naxos highly acclaimed recordings of string quartets by Ravel, Debussy, Haydn and Schubert.
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HAYDN: String Quartets Nos. 23, 24 and 27, 'Sun Qu...