Classical Era: Haydn’s String Quartets

We’ve established classical era music as a delicate balance between a logically satisfying format and emotionally stirring character, and looked at how Mozart’s symphonies embodied these concepts. Another hugely influential medium developed during the Classical era was the string quartet, which we’ll look at today through the same analytical lens we used in the last entry. If you need reminders about terms, you may wish to visit the last entry for a refresher.

“String quartet” can refer to the work of music itself, the entire string quartet sub-genre, or the actual ensemble performing said work of music. So, all three of these sentences are correct:

  • The string quartet is one of the quintessential formats for Western music.
  • Haydn wrote 68 string quartets.
  • The Guarneri string quartet were known to sit at separate tables when they ate out and take different flights on tour!

As you can see, it depends on context, and I will be as clear as I can whether I’m referring to the genre, a specific composition or a four-member ensemble of musicians.

The String Quartet (as a genre)

Two violins, one viola and one cello make up a string quartet, and together they perform without additional accompaniment. All string player bias aside (as possible), this ensemble is undeniably pleasing to the ear, and has become a staple of the Western art music canon. I suspect this is because of the way its instruments are similar enough to one another to produce remarkable unity, but they are also distinct enough to provide subtle contrast. The members of the bowed, fretless viol family are, after all, progressively larger iterations of the same design.

The string quartet as an ensemble is large enough to build both thin and full sound textures with all instruments able to produce one or several simultaneous pitches. Yet this ensemble is also small enough to fit in most rooms, move location relatively quickly, and employ fewer people, which made it logistically versatile and of great popularity in royal courts.

Haydn: The Father of the String Quartet

This is where Austrian composer Josef Haydn comes in. Standard for the time period, his composing was almost entirely supported by wealthy patrons in courts, his principal patron being the Austro-Hungarian court of Esterhazy. During his years as musical director of the Esterhazy court, Haydn was required to write whatever the family wanted, but his freedom grew as his reputation did, and his talent for writing string quartets, among other things, was getting him international attention. His collection of 68 string quartets is also a particularly interesting window into his development as a composer, since the dates in which he wrote quartets span his entire adult life. His later quartets are notably different than the earlier ones, but even the earliest ones show creativity and wit that was a cut above the rest.

Today I will give three examples of Haydn’s string quartet writing that will give a small window into this lifetime of evolution as a composer. We’ll look at an early, middle-period and later quartet from his repertoire and compare general aspects of each. I hope you enjoy not only the beauty of the music, but also the differences in character that become clearer when these works are played in succession.

Take note that we’ll start referring to composers’ works in opus numbers. Opus numbers are a way to group and organize a composer’s complete collection of works. An opus can have one single work or it can have several in a set, but it will always refer to a work’s place relative to everything else that composer wrote chronologically. For example, String Quartet no. 14 may be Haydn’s 14th quartet to be written, but is not Haydn’s 14th composition, since he wrote operas, cantatas, masses and concerti and more in between. Opus numbers put works into context of everything the composer ever wrote, so low opus numbers mean chronologically earlier, higher numbers later.

String Quartet no. 14 in E Flat Major, opus 9 no. 2

This quartet is one of Haydn’s early works, and already shows his talent for texturing the four instruments of the quartet in a pleasing way. The first violin (remember, there are two) has a soloistic presence in the ensemble, playing nearly every melodic line by itself while the other instruments are strictly accompanying. Sometimes the melodies introduced by the first violin are imitated, passed around the ensemble, or developed. Almost never does another instrument besides the first violin introduce new melodic material by itself.

This type of texture is pleasing to the ear because the highest voice, the easiest one to hear, plays all the melodies, and as the instrument ranges become lower, the role in the ensemble is akin to singing alto, tenor and bass. The lower three instruments very much resemble a choir in how closely related their rhythms and pitches are, building chords and providing harmony under the melody going on above.

Pay special attention also to the fact that even in the early works, Haydn plays with melodies being different lengths. The opening melody of the first movement does not have a symmetrical 8-bar length, but is only 6 bars. There is also modal mixing which means that a chord suddenly changes from a major to a minor sound unexpectedly.

The minuet is also an example of melodies that aren’t symmetrical length. The second half of the minuet is cleaner, with a satisfyingly symmetrical melody, but even this is quickly developed by other instruments, and low voices suddenly entering after higher voices finish cause surprise to the ear. The somber slow movement has an introduction in which Haydn plays with instruments entering chords at different times, one after another. The last movement is short and spritely, and the melody jumps large intervals to add to the hopping, dancelike feeling. It also showcases the dexterity of the musicians, especially the first violinist!

String Quartet no. 30 in E Flat, “The Joke,” op. 33 no. 2

Biographers, scholars, and contemporaries for whom writings about Haydn survive, all agree that Haydn had a robust sense of humor. He was sacked from his first chorister post for snipping off a fellow chorister’s ponytail, and he wrote his “Farewell” symphony, in which the musicians progressively leave the stage, to tell the then-prince of Esterhazy that the musicians were overdue for their vacation.

His quartets are often lighthearted anyway, but this particular quartet even gets a nickname for its odes to humor on several levels. Some jokes are on the musicians, some on the audience, and some reward the most active listeners with unexpected harmonic progressions, lapses in counterpoint and phrases that aren’t completed in a way we expect.

The first movement is frivolous and light, as any good joke is. Midway through first movement, there is a joke on the first violinist, who out of nowhere has a flurry of notes that are exceptionally challenging and even out of character with the lightheartedness set up by the beginning of the movement.

The minuet is a peasant dance which appropriates antics of peasants in both of its parts. First is a stomping dance that doesn’t paint peasants as very graceful dancers. Second is a graphic depiction of the village fiddler, complete with glissandi (slides between notes) that, in that time period, were not stylish.

The slow movement starts oddly as well, featuring a duet between viola and cello while the violins sit out. This movement also has phrases that should end, but are cut off by either silence or other unrelated material, making it difficult to listen to with expectations.

The last movement takes this cutting off concept to new heights. In addition to the unfinished phrases throughout the movement, the opening phrase of the movement is repeated many times at the end, so much that it’s difficult to tell when the movement, and the quartet as a whole, is over. Haydn himself said about this ending that “the ladies will surely be talking already” before the piece actually ended. See if you also guess wrong when the movement ends as you listen. Wouldn’t want to clap at the wrong time!

String Quartet no. 63 in B flat, “Sunrise,” op. 76 no. 4

This quartet also has a nickname, probably due to the opening which really does resemble a grand, ascending appearance out of nothing. A simple held chord accompanies a rising melodic line, and each instrument has a chance to be in the spotlight. Haydn began experimenting with his op.76 quartets, which are among his most celebrated for their creativity. For example, instead of the clearly separated roles which became the usual in his earlier works, Haydn gives melodic material to all members of the group in his later quartets, and everyone rotates their responsibilities. This particular first movement is a great example of this rotation of players, since much of the material is dense with counterpoint. It sounds as if each instrument states melodies with equal importance, rather than as imitations of other players.

The second movement is calm and inward-looking, with the first violin taking much responsibility again, but other instruments offering notable counter-statements too. The harmonies also darken to a point that wasn’t usual for Haydn before, and dissonance is used daringly.

The minuet is another classic peasant dance, this time with more counterpoint and interest in individual parts. There’s also more interesting harmonic structure than in previous minuets; the first and second themes are bridged together with shared held chords that fall into dissonance before the second theme can really begin.

The last movement applies many of these general concepts, along with melodies that are extended well past the usual 8-bar, symmetrical pattern with daring tags, ornaments and harmonic continuations.

I hope you enjoy these quartets, and know that there are over 60 others waiting for you! Mozart, a good friend of Haydn’s, also wrote excellent string quartets. Mozart and Haydn admired one another’s works, using them as inspiration and even quoting the other within works. If you listen to enough of these quartets perhaps you will even hear quotes as well! When appreciating any art out of context, the more you know about what was happening around the artist and who influenced them, the more you enjoy its details. Music is no different, so for this week enjoy as many string quartets as you dare!

You can even listen to my own string quartet performing Haydn on our web site.

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