performed by the Buchberger Quartet, or below by the Festetics Quartet
The first string quartet (of all, but especially) of Haydn’s that we shall sink our teeth into for this series is his number 11, the fourth of his opus nine output of another set of six string quartets. The other five we will take in one go tomorrow. Maybe.
It’s the first quartet that Hans Keller addresses in his book The Great Haydn Quartets that I’ve referred to so many times already. He begins with two questions:
Where in our overflowing, largely superfluous literature on music and its history can one find the simple, crucially informative statement that Haydn’s first quartet in the minor mode is the first great string quartet in the history of music? But then, where can one find awareness of the fact?
I think the question he is asking is, “What’s so great about this work?” He makes an interesting connection. “Haydn’s genius thus exploded for the first time at the age at which Mozart died; the quartet antedates his almost unbroken flow of gigantic masterpieces, which started with Op. 20, by 2 or 3 years.”
There’s a footnote about Mozart’s genius, and a late developer, but that things were so easy for him that he didn’t need his genius. Anyway, before delving into the performance notes on this work, Keller says that this is, in so many words, a suitable gateway drug into the quartets of Haydn, because it “is not very difficult to play,” while acknowledging that the best gateway drug to introduce oneself to Haydn’s quartets is the next D minor quartet in his output, op. 42.
I should make a point here. Taking on these quartets one or two a week drastically increases the volume of music that I will be listening to and trying to process. I’m not hedging; it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time, to start getting into all these quartets, but I should probably have also gotten a much bigger head start. That is to say that my addressing of these works, in some cases, is (while not entirely, it’s much) more like a first (or fifth or tenth) impression of the work than a presentation of it after I’ve digested and processed it all. I expect to be sharing my thoughts on these quartets much more as a new listener than feigning to have any kind of insight into them.
I am also seeing them in many ways out of context. Keller speaks about how the earlier ‘inferior’ works should only be (or are best) approached after having digested and experienced the later quartets, that is, in the context of the greatness he would later achieve. But I’m not going to set aside a year for that listening project, so… like the symphonies, here we go!
I also want to mention as a preface to this work in particular (and really everything after it) that Joseph Haydn was, at the time of these compositions, nearly 40 years old! It would coincide with his symphony no. 40 or so, so… late bloomer? The symphonies don’t have opus numbers, but no. 40 was also published in 1769. File that away and we’ll get to it later.
It’s an outstanding breath of fresh air to hear something that really sounds solidly quartet-like, the rich expression, the textures, the word ‘Viennese’ even comes to mind. It’s rich, dark, almost ominous. I’m instantly hooked. The low strings in the background, the pained-sounding melody from our already previously-heavily-featured violinist suddenly sounds like a quartet, it’s saying something, and I am quickly moved. It’s not long before these dark clouds roll in, though, that the sky clears, bringing us a kind of fresh energy in a brighter key, like when the sun comes out while everything is stilled drenched from afternoon showers. That D minor theme comes back and it’s just as fulfilling as it was the first time around. Yes! Vibrant, exciting, passionate. The movement goes somewhere, and even has a few dramatic pauses.
Oh, the virtues of a good sonata form.
The minuet sounds very much in keeping with the first movement, as far as the mood that’s set with it, the kind of bittersweet, sorrowful key. A nice minuet, and then there’s this passage that jumps out as all wrong notes, like someone forgot to tune suddenly, not cacophony, but clashing, maybe not as much to modern ears. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be taken humorously or tragically, but it stands out.
The third movement adagio is, I think, a clear example of how something can still be less than fascinatingly lively and complex, but still have motion and movement and dialogue that the divertimenti so lacked. This is a pretty movement. It doesn’t awe me or send my jaw to the floor, but it’s head and shoulders more interesting than anything in the previous opus numbers.
The final movement is busy, and while not as captivating and moving as the opening movement, has lots of interesting content, and pretty much never stops for the full four minutes. Even with the nonstop music, there’s contrast and some sense of motion, tension, something to follow. It’s a crunchy movement that ends crunchily, a succinct, tightly-presented string quartet, with a decisive finish. It indeed might be, as more than a few sources have suggested, the world’s first great string quartet. This article from AllMusic praises the Buchberger Quartet’s performance, essentially saying that they give validation to these otherwise-overlooked quartets.
And to be honest, I’d fully intended to lump the other five of opus 9 together and move on, but if this work is any indication of (either the rest of the works in this opus, but more assuredly) what is to come in higher opus numbers, like 55 and 74, then, my goodness are we in for some good music. I’m excited.
My thoughts on this are… that Papa Haydn is sort of credited as the ‘father of the string quartet,’ even though it’s extremely likely that an ensemble of four stringed instruments played music together before any proverbial apple fell on Haydn’s head. What’s interesting though, is that it seems, just here, like he’s suddenly learned something about this sort-of-invention of his, how to use it, what its strengths are, that puts it in an entirely different category of compositions than the opp. 1-3 (we did not discuss 3 because they’re not Haydn). I’m curious what perhaps could have brought this seemingly quite sudden epiphany to the actually-now-not-so-young composer.
Remember the 40-year-old bit? Remember 1769? Wikipedia tells us that this was around the time that the Sturm und Drang phase came over the composer. It says:
In the late 1760s and early 1770s, Haydn entered a stylistic period known as “Sturm und Drang” (“storm and stress”). This term is taken from a literary movement of about the same time, though it appears that the musical development actually preceded the literary one by a few years.[n 25] The musical language of this period is similar to what went before, but it is deployed in work that is more intensely expressive, especially in the works in minor keys. James Webster describes the works of this period as “longer, more passionate, and more daring.”
Given as examples are symphonies 44-45, and the op. 20 string quartets. We’re still in opus 9, so it’s a bit early, but maybe this was Papa Haydn sticking his big toe into something new and testing the waters. In any case, I love the result.