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ClassicsOnline Home » HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 50, Nos. 4 - 6, 'Prussian'
"This is a monumental achievement. The fact that this complete cycle of Joseph Haydn's string quartets by the Kodaly Quartet also happens to be priced lower than any other choice on the market is a bonus, but the truth is that these performances are priceless. There is eloquence in the readings throughout, and there is opulence both in the playing of these Hungarian musicians and in Naxos' digital recording from Budapest.
"Haydn's quartets are civilized music, elegant and often deeply moving. Many people consider the string quartet the very definition of musical purity, and it is the realm where composers for centuries have been creating scores that are intellectually challenging and immensely satisfying. Yet the origins of the string quartet -- in many ways Haydn's invention -- were humble.
"The first were little entertainments using a configuration of whatever instrumentalists happened to be around. Haydn's own Op. 1, published in Paris in 1764, was billed as ``Divertimenti.'' As the Kodaly Quartet makes clear, however, there is depth here well beyond a musical trifle. By 1803, the time of Haydn's unfinished Op. 103, the string quartet was firmly established as the form of choice for innovation: A particularly rowdy student of Haydn's, Ludwig van Beethoven, was already redefining the string quartet's possibilities even as Haydn penned his last few notes.
"The Kodaly Quartet's performances are a pleasure. They are forward-looking and intensely personal, and the sheer emotional import of the slow movements in particular signals the coming of Romanticism. The Central European flavor of the string tone, its occasionally shameless vibrato together with the robust rendering of Haydn's stark dynamic contrasts, makes for a gripping listening experience.
"Gripping, and also very beautiful. The musicians can play as one, with an old organ's velvet textures; but they can also, in the charming minuets as well as in the witty variations that pepper the cycle, retain individual voices that reveal strong musical personalities. In that curious suite of adagios known as ``The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross,'' a Haydn masterpiece, the Kodaly Quartet finds variety in the long lines. Intonation is perfect, something that cannot always be said of the recent, often excellent competing recordings by the Quatuor Mosaiques.
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
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 a new set of six string quartets as early as
1784, two years after the publication of his so-called Russian quartets, Opus
33. The set of six that form Opus 50, the so-called Prussian quartets,
dedicated to the cello-playing King Frederick William II of Prussia, was
written in 1787, to be published by Artaria, whose delay gave the composer an
excuse to elicit money from the London publisher Forster for publication there,
a step that led to later argument with Artaria's London collaborators Longman
and Broderip. The quartets occupy an important position in the development of
the genre, reflecting the influence of Mozart's six quartets recently dedicated
to Haydn, themselves the product of the latter's study of Haydn's work. With
Mozart's move to Vienna in 1781, there had come about more personal contact
between the two composers and reciprocal influence and respect that allowed
Haydn to develop the string quartet still further, while ceasing to use forms
that Mozart had made his own, notably the concerto and opera. Sixteen years
later it seems that Beethoven's first excursion into quartet territory led
Haydn finally to abandon it.
The Quartet in F sharp minor, Opus 50, No. 4, opens with a
strongly stated figure that serves, in part, to introduce the A major second
subject, and, as it should, the central development. After brief contrapuntal
treatment, the principal theme returns, to be capped by its final appearance in
the tonic major key of F sharp. In the slow movement the first violin is
entrusted with the A major singing theme of the second movement, to be followed
by an A minor derivative. The two thematic elements are varied, before the
return of a version of the A major theme from the second violin, with comment
from the first, which goes on to a rapider ornamented conclusion in a movement
that has earned the nickname Der Traum (‘The Dream’). The Minuet is
in F sharp major, with a contrasting trio in the tonic minor. There follows a
final fugue, introduced by the cello, followed in turn by the viola, second
violin and first violin. The choice of key, again F sharp minor, ensures a
continued element of poignancy in a movement that retains motivic connection
with what has already passed.
The mood of the Quartet in F major, Opus 50, No. 5, is a very
different one. It starts with the two violins proposing a simple motif,
repeated in sequence, before moving forward to secondary material of greater
rapidity. The central development, once the exposition has been duly repeated,
allows both elements to be explored, before the recapitulation and its final surprises.
The B flat major slow movement derives certain features from what has gone
before and is marked by the recurrence of scale passages in contrary motion and
of thirds between the two violins. There is a monothematic connection between
the F major Minuet and its F minor Trio. The quartet ends with a Vivace
in 6/8, the last movement of the set to be completed, seemingly with some
relief. In structure it is generally predictable, its sections clearly
differentiated and allowing much activity in the central development.
The set ends with Quartet in D major, Opus 50, No. 6, known as The
Frog from the alternating of strings on the same note, the device of bariolage,
used in the last movement. It has also earned itself the nicknames of The
House on Fire and The Row in Vienna, sobriquets which, however
popular at one time or another, now seem increasingly inept. The quartet seems
about to start in another key, before the proper D major is established.
Basically monothematic, the movement finds an important place for the opening
motif of six notes, both in the repeated exposition as in the central
development and recapitulation. The slow movement is in D minor, its principal
theme soon transformed into a brighter F major. The central section of the
movement shifts at first into D flat major, before a further modulation that
brings running notes in accompaniment of the D minor theme, soon to return as a
second subject, now in D major. Skipping rhythms mark the melody of the Minuet,
with its Trio, bringing a melody with repeated notes perhaps
remembered from the Adagio. After the customary repetition of the Minuet,
the last movement starts with first violin bariolage, making use of
fingered notes and the open A, E and D strings in that order. This, and other
uses of alternating strings in this way, are a principal feature of a movement
of considerable originality, the rapider repeated notes suggesting those of the
preceding two movements. This Finale is monothematic, but falls into the
three structural sections now expected, providing elements of surprise and
ingenuity within that form.
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