SQS: Haydn’s Divertimenti a Quattro, op. 2

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

no. 8
no. 9
no. 10

Contained in this opus number are four quartets, per Wikipedia:

  • Quartet No. 7 in A major, Op. 2, No. 1, FHE No. 58, Hoboken No. III:7
  • Quartet No. 8 in E major, Op. 2, No. 2, FHE No. 59, Hoboken No. III:8
  • Quartet No. 9 in F major, Op. 2, No. 4, FHE No. 61, Hoboken No. III:10
  • Quartet No. 10 in B major, Op. 2, No. 6, FHE No. 63, Hoboken No. III:12

No.s 3 and 5 are ‘arrangements of Cassations’ in “an unknown hand. Yesterday we talked about the first six divertimenti, which were written between 1762 and 1764. Today’s were completed in an overlapping period, from 1763-1765. Seriously, you don’t even need to read these. If you don’t want to be as bored as I was when I listened to these works, skip to The Main Point below.

Number 7 in A major begins in similar fashion to its op. 1 brethren, with an allegro, a lively movement, followed by a minuet. In fact, all but no. 10 follow this pattern. The first minuet is a friendly one. There’s a minor key midsection with pizzicato that’s more memorable, but won’t be after it’s used a few more times in similar fashion. The central adagio sounds a bit more vocal, with a more standout soloist and her background singers doing their triplet thing. The second minuet wins me over as the most charming thing in this quartet, but the finale of this work begins to sound a bit too lively for an elevator. It’s nice.

Number 8 in E major follows the same progression. With very few exceptions, it really seems like the first violin does all the talking, or all the questioning in a question-and-answer, and the other folks are relegated to background positions in the quartet, more like a very small violin concerto than that extremely intimate string quartet feeling. The first minuet is more of the same; I want cello or something, and then we get it, just for a but it’s not enough to save the work. The opening of the adagio sounds like the first movement of the first quartet, which I find to be the most memorable of everything so far. The adagio gives us a solo moment with a violin, and a small glimpse of a cello speaking by itself, and there’s some double stopping. Not much else to report. The second minuet brings us back to hopes of yummy hors-d’oeuvres and champagne. The memorable moments of the finale are some of what I believe (or hope) will become typically apparent Haydn humor, some stops and starts, a few stutters in the opening of the work that punctuate the otherwise very proper (i.e. dry) movement.

Number 9 in F major begins in a charming way, if all the other quartets up to this point didn’t sound similarly. The minuet is rather bland, the adagio sounds mildly pained if not a bit complain-y, and the second minuet is almost catchy. The finale would be pleasant, but it isn’t really, for reasons I’ll talk about later.

Number 10 in Bb major again, begins almost strongly. At least each one of these overall unmemorable works begins with its most memorable if not a mildly more memorable passage. The menuet is menuettish, and then… Scherzo! It’s something different, and quite lively, bookended by very plain menuets. I’m not even sure I’m spelling that right. The CD material spells it menuet, but I think I’ve typed minuet a bunch of times already. French. Sadly, the effect of the central scherzo is that it makes the minuet that follows even more boring. The finale might be the exact same one from no. 9. I’m kidding. It’s not.

In reading Hans Keller’s book, or rather browsing through it, I would agree with both Amazon reviewers (that are there at the time of this writing). One hails it as an incredible piece of musical writing, and the other says it’s practically useless to the listener. Both true. The edition featured in that link has the very critical subtitle ‘Their Interpretation‘, which the edition I checked out from the library did not have. Once I cracked into it, I saw that it really is very specific to playing these works, how to interpret them intelligently, where to put the focus of the quartet, etc. rather than history of composition or program notes. I should have known.

However, one thing that really did stand out to me was the main point he made about the greatest fault in these earliest of “quartets.” In the preface, he hails the quartet as being more an intimate dialogue for the performers themselves rather than the listeners, that we (as listeners) have the privilege of eavesdropping, of listening in on the experience, and that this almost-spiritual, very palpable atmosphere is essential to the effectiveness of a string quartet, to the point that the music itself must convey the importance of these four players and what they’re doing, the urgency, as it were of four people interacting with one another. It’s a beautiful, poetic statement, and then he explains easily why these works fail to accomplish it.

The main point:

There is no necessity for these ‘divertimenti’ to be played by a string quartet.  

There’s no urgency, no immediacy of the form, such that nothing would be lost (in fact, as he said, much might be gained) from swapping the quartet out for some other ensemble or combination of instruments. As I listened to these ten early ‘quartets’, I found myself thinking that they’d actually be quite nice if the whole thing were transposed for piano. It might have to be boiled down a bit, but it would seem like an improvement.  The pieces are, ultimately, unnecessary.

And it shocks me, in some ways, that I’m saying that about works of Papa Haydn, but Keller makes a fantastic argument to that effect in just a few short paragraphs. One of those points, though, is a positive one, and it is this: Haydn wrote incredible, important, stunningly beautiful works for the string quartet that make these little more than afterthoughts.

But alas, I am familiar with none of them. Keller also suggest that no quartet or performer (or maybe even listener) give attention to the following ‘inferior works’ until they can do so in the context of knowing intimately the mature works:

  • The opus 1 and 2 ‘quartet divertimento’ works we have discussed
  • The opus 3, the same, except these are generally considered not to be of Haydn’s hand
  • The opus 9 quartets, except for no. 4 in D minor, which he highly praises
  • The op. 17 quartets, six of them
  • The opus 33, no. 4 (String Quartet no. 34) which he says is also of no consequence

The opus 51 ‘Seven Last Words’ is also a transcription that he ignores. As a result, we will be gliding through the above quartets in the same cursory manner as we have these opp. 1 and 2 works in the next few weeks, spending time on those that Keller says are worthy of it. After all, there’s still Mozart, Dittersdorf, Beethoven, Schubert, and tons more to get through beyond even Haydn’s own late quartets.

3 thoughts on “SQS: Haydn’s Divertimenti a Quattro, op. 2

  1. I would suggest that you not place total confidence in Keller. Remember, he is expressing HIS opinions, and those are based on the opinions of his teachers, etc. There has been lots of rethinking this issue since Keller wrote his book. One major revision in thought is this: he holds Opus 1 & 2 to the same standard as Opus 76! In the 40 years between the composition of these works, the entire musical world changed. When Haydn wrote Op 1, there was no such thing as a string quartet. No such thing as a ‘dialog between friends’, no such anything. So for Keller to go back 200 years later and say these works don’t meet that standard verges on lunacy. And that doesn’t even take into account Op. 33#4! 😉

    In the context in which they were created, that is, compared to the music which existed in 1750’s Central Europe, these works were clearly brilliant and revolutionary. If they weren’t, the string quartet we know today would simply never have existed.

    Best Regards,

    1. Well said, and I understand. Having finally reached the op. 20 quartets (forthcoming) though, I’ve come to realize how much more significant op 9 and 17 are as ‘prototypes’ (?) for the glory of the later stuff. I don’t fault Papa Haydn for not starting with genius works. Credit to him for giving a voice to this ensemble that would later do amazing things. And thank you for the comment.

      1. Yes, there is growth. As you plainly see. Keller’s approach didn’t make an allowance for growth, if one played by his rules, then anything short of a pinnacle is merely part of a trudge, instead of being a pinnacle all on its own. That view always makes me sad.

        I am very impressed with your blog, your scope is tremendous!

        Best regards,

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