SQS: Haydn’s Divertimenti a Quattro, op. 1, no.s 1-6

performed by the Buchberger Quartet, or below by the Kodàly Quartet

no. 2
no. 3
no. 4
no. 5
no. 6

The below from Wikipedia:

  • Quartet No. 1 in B major (“La Chasse”), Op. 1, No. 1, FHE No. 52, Hoboken No. III:1
  • Quartet No. 2 in E major, Op. 1, No. 2, FHE No. 53, Hoboken No. III:2
  • Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 1, No. 3, FHE No. 54, Hoboken No. III:3
  • Quartet No. 4 in G major, Op. 1, No. 4, FHE No. 55, Hoboken No. III:4
  • Quartet No. 5 in E major, Op. 1, No. 0, Hoboken No. II:6 (also referred to as Opus 0)
  • Quartet No. 6 in C major, Op. 1, No. 6, FHE No. 57, Hoboken No. III:6

In preparing thoughts for this series, I had originally intended to discuss the opus 1 and 2 quartets individually like all the others, so I checked out Hans Keller’s The Great Haydn Quartets from the local performing arts library. It’s a hefty book, of satisfying size, but I did not pay close enough attention to either the title or the table of contents, for the earliest quartet the book discusses is the op. 9 no. 4 quartet, before jumping directly to the op. 20 quartets. Also seeing how the man has 68 (numbered) quartets, give or take, that number not including the (depending on who you ask) spurious op 3. quartets as well as two quartets from op. 2, there’s plenty of music to talk about anyway. I ultimately decided we’ll take these six quartets all in a day.

There’s little information to be had on them on the web, and even the occasional reference to the op. 1 no. 1 as “La Chasse,” returns results for other of Haydn’s quartets. So, in the interest of time and attention, and trusting Keller’s judgment, I decided we’ll address these in one fell swoop and get to the meatier stuff faster. There’s plenty more to talk about with the others, and this way, we’ll get to them faster. But before that, you should read Norman Lebrecht’s article How to Get a Handle on Haydn. That is what we are trying to do, here, and what I’ve been struggling with for sometime. The title is catching, and makes succinct, significant points, such as “the sheer volume of output saps the will to listen”; “There are ways into Haydn, but they require thoughtful context”; “Haydn is not a stand-alone composer, but a warm-up act.” “[Haydn] is not a composer who, like Mozart or Beethoven, shows consistent novelty and strength of will.”

I find myself nodding at all of these statements as I think about beginning the writing of the first six of 68 string quartets, with another 100-ish symphonies from the same composer. Anyway…

There are six quartets for opus one. I’ll be using the recordings from the box set performed by the Buchberger quartet, as released by Brilliant Classics, and these works are all listed as “Divertimento” quartets. Heller, in his book, devotes less than a paragraph to these works and the opus 9 quartets. He states “the less said about the early divertimento ‘quartets’, a dozen and a half of them (Opera 1, 2 and 3), the better…” So there’s that.

And to be honest, I have not found them particularly charming or inspiring in the few listens I have given them. I have certainly given some of the future quartets in this series some devoted listenings (and even readings of their scores) and have found them to be instantly charming, (e.g. the early quartets of Beethoven), but these, unfortunately not, so I’m a bit pleased to find I’m not the only one that thinks so. The end of tomorrow’s article succinctly summarizes my thoughts on these early pieces.

They’re all in five movements, with a minuet that bookends a central adagio or, in the case of no. 3, a scherzo, with the adagio as the first movement. That one aside, the others have fast outer movements. Wikipedia does not give much insight into what exactly a divertimento is, but it seems this term, coming from the Italian divertire, ‘to amuse,’ is simply in reference to a ‘light piece’ to be enjoyed socially, as a suite, non-specific to instruments or form, and does not reflect the three- or four-movement form we have come to expect, know and love from the string quartet. That description well enough describes the ‘quartet divertimenti’ below.

The first quartet is in B flat major opens with a charming-enough melody for the presto. The minuets, to me, are the charm of this quartet, and thankfully there are two, as is the case with all works in this opus number. The finale is also presto, but not nearly as charming as the opening, at best somewhat playful, crisp elevator music, something by which to enjoy something fancy served from a tray, not be moved by. I’d enjoy the mild liveliness of the finale in the background at a very fancy restaurant where teacups clink delicately onto saucers.

The second quartet is in E flat major, and it too comes in at right around 17 minutes in length. The opening of the allegro molto in the first movement does not get my attention like the first one did. Pretty? Sure. It’s really outstanding background music. Perhaps the no. 1 for no. 1 was chosen for a reason. The second does not charm like its younger cousin, not even really in the minuets, the second of which sounds like it came out of the first quartet. The finale of this quartet is to me by far the most enjoyable thing in the work.

The third in D is the one that begins slowly, and sounds like something we’ve heard before, from no. 1? It’s not even really sweetly slow, but at least something different. There’s some more noticeable layering. The first minuet is equally background-worthy, but with a noticeably different midsection marked by a pizzicato here and there, and a nice minor-key. The middle movement is our fast one, and it lasts for about 90 seconds. It’s busy, messy even… but has some humor, maybe. The finale, like the minuets, seem to cover slightly more ground, with a minor-key section or something interesting to listen to, but we move forward.

The fourth in G opens strangely, to me, like something’s not quite coming together, but is interesting for it, I guess. This quartet, at almost 20 minutes (in these recordings, anyway) is the longest of the bunch. The first minuet is one I can enjoy, with a pleasant triple-meter melody, only the best background tunes for me, with the slightest bit of drama. The adagio sounds like some other kind of dance, but a more awkward one, and is the longest movement of this quartet, but the fourth movement sounds not too far removed, slightly more minuettish. The finale feels like a breath of fresh, if not recently-breathed air. What does this sound like? Maybe the others.

The fifth in E flat shares a key with no. 2, but the first movement contains some jittery, crunchy bits that sound lively. This quartet is only slightly shorter than no. 4, but the presto is over in a hurry, and we get to the first minuet. It’s heavy-ish, with longer, strongish first beats, and a contrasting middle section. I feel like I’ve heard the adagio (at least once) before now, and it’s the longest movement up to this point, at what feels like a hefty 5:11. The second minuet is more baroque-sounding, but again, nothing groundbreaking here. The finale mimics the first movement that tries hard to break through the glass ceiling out of background music into having something important to say.

The final quartet divertimento is in C major. The presto assai sounds like some kind of jig, I must admit, catchy-ish! First minuet sounds familiar. The central adagio of this quartet takes the cake for longest movement of this opus number, at a whopping six minutes. It’s a plucking trio playing behind a first violin, and then is that a viola? But following it is one of the less charming minuets, and we have another allegro to round out our series of six quartets. It borders on charming, and if I were nearing the end of a fancy two-hour meal and this piece came on as the last in the soundtrack of an expensive evening, I’d feel quite chipper walking out the door, if I didn’t have to part with too much of my dough.

So that’s it! If I’ve offended you with the brevity of my discussion of these first quartets, then I cannot fathom how incredible the late works must be. We shall get there, for sure, but a bit faster now. I’m giving the same treatment tomorrow to the four canonical quartet divertimenti of opus two, and the general conclusion I’ve reached about these works, so stay tuned for that.

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