SQS: Haydn String quartets 17-22, op. 17

performed by the Buchberger Quartet, or per the below links

We’re just burning through the early Haydn quartets! (Maybe he should have, too! I kid, really.)

The opus 17 quartets are as follows:

Again, very little about these works online, or elsewhere. This review of the quartets performed by the London Haydn Quartet states that “Haydn’s String Quartets Op 17 were written during his most effusively productive period,” and:

These string quartets mark Haydn’s emergence as an indisputably great composer. They have a seriousness of intent and an increasing mastery of rhetoric and thematic development that are a world away from the lightweight divertimento-quartets that he was formerly producing.

That’s what everyone seems to agree on. The short article also mentions “the achingly beautiful melodies of the adagio movements.” The AllMusic review of the same album, which by the way is given 4.5 stars, says that the opp. 9, 17, and 20 quartets are “full of experiment at every level and really were the works that laid the groundwork for the persistence of the string quartet genre,” and mentions the composer’s “evolving conception of the quartet as a meeting of equals.” That, more than anything, is what I’m looking forward to.

Both articles mention that these quartets were written with one specific violin virtuoso in mind, but that the violin part is more melodic than virtuoso. We shall see.

String Quartet no. 17 in F major finds me thinking of Beethoven. I’ve begun to enjoy very much his opus 18 quartets, and Haydn’s first op. 17 effort sounds much more along those lines than the mediocre divertimenti. It’s something I enjoy listening to, that has depth, expression, and motion all in the very first movement. The minuet, too, pulls me in, and has its expressive, deeper moments. There are some sweet moments in the adagio, and the finale is nice, but not terribly memorable, although it does have a certain liveliness.

String Quartet no. 18 in E major begins, at least to me, unpromisingly. I am not drawn in. It sounds nursery rhyme-ish, but gets better. There’s a nice development section with some noticeably more virtuoso passages, and more heartfelt sections. The minuet feels like it’s heading back to background-music territory, but the trio is distant and heartbroken-sounding, which makes the sunny return of the minuet quite sweet, and very effective. The adagio is of a serious, emotional note that’s a bit surprising but also welcomed in what are works that can be sometimes a little… plain. The adagio makes up about a third of the length of the piece, and the lively, brisk, finale with interesting rhythms and a bit of humor is a nice contrast to end the quartet, with bits that call the first movement to mind.

String Quartet no. 19 in C minor sounds promising. His D other minor-key quartet, no. 11, was wonderful. It’s not long into this piece, though, that it sounds… not like minor, because we’ve landed quickly in A flat major. The introduction is sufficiently somber, but it feels like just that, only an introduction, as what comes after is maybe just slightly cloudy, not really melancholy, almost bright in passages. I find this movement to be more interesting harmonically than melodically, as it seems to hover between the bright, sunny and the melancholy. The minuet is interesting. The cello begins low in its register, sounding almost comically big against the other instruments with its 00m-pa-pa. We’re in C major, but hey! there’s our C minor key in the trio. (Reading about this work, it seems Haydn is doing more and more inventive things with key changes and presentation and use of subjects in these works, and my quick discussion is not to diminish them, but there’s much more to come.) The minuet ends abruptly to lead into the (again) longest-movement adagio, and it’s another example of the composer’s sense of development and presentation getting stronger, with presentation of the same melody over different accompaniment, and another section of different content in the minor. There’s a little solo (cadenza) bit for violin at the end of this movement that stands out in the quartet before it finishes out the movement. James Reel at AllMusic describes the finale thusly:

The finale, Allegro, like the first movement, is built from a tiny opening motif-in this case, a grand expansion to four essentially descending notes, the middle two a sort of twisting transition between the first and last. A short, contrapuntal transition leads to the secondary material, which is a soloistic display of double stops for the first violin. After Haydn has set out all this harmonically unstable material, he binds it into a contrapuntal development section, then recapitulates it in tremendously condensed form…

The ideas are becoming… beefier? There’s lots more to pay attention to, to focus on, to enjoy, and is it just me or is he sounding more and more like Beethoven? Maybe it’s becoming more obvious what potential inspiration Young Luddy got from Papa Haydn, even if their time together was only brief. This finale is really wonderful… I’m starting to feel guilty about grouping all these works together.

String Quartet no. 20 in D major begins brightly, but aside from being pleasant and musical and harmonic and all the rest, what stands out the most to me aside from the vibrance of the movement is that the development seems more interesting. The movement seems to go more places, unlike what we saw from, say, Dittersdorf’s quartet, which was very nice, but kind of just stayed where it was in many ways. The minuet of this work is plain, but kind of texturally interesting. The largo is a nice movement, slow, pretty-ish, but I could say that about most of these. What I want to say about it is something that differentiates it from the plethora of other slow movements, of quartets or symphonies, and I really can’t. The finale has some interesting phrasing, some things that come off as ethnic, folksy, even odd at times. It’s by far the highlight of the work, the most unique thing here. It’s a bit subdued for a finale, and ends suddenly and quietly.

String Quartet No. 21 In E major is a more subdued work, at least at the beginning. It’s not that bubbly, crisp, energetic opening, but softer. The minuet is also not raucous or frolicky, but the trio is interesting, and the movement ends kind of abruptly. The meat of this quartet, a full third of the work, is in the adagio third movement. This, as far as I recall, is the longest single movement of any of the quartets so far (and a quick check of track lengths confirms this). Beethoven comes to mind, or at least hints of him. These works are also from around the time he’d have been born. The movement is expansive and expressive, with more time to savor and focus on, digest the content. It’s pensive. The finale is quick, short, and crisp, the liveliest thing we’ve had in this work, a refreshing, goodhearted way to end what was a warmer, softer, pensive quartet, a welcome change.

String Quartet No. 22 in G major might very well be my favorite of the bunch. From the opening, it sounds cheeky, engaging, friendly, and gets interesting very quickly, with offbeats and accents and textures that make it more inventive and appealing than just about everything that came before it. This, I feel, is head and shoulders more engaging than just about anything from this opus. The minuet brings a smile to the face. It’s not stuffy, sounds full of jokes and playful whimsy. It’s a short little movement, but does its job, trio and all. The adagio brings things down, gets a little serious. It’s almost mournful, but the shadow that it brings to this quartet is a delicious counterbalance to what came before. It’s management of tension, creation of scope and contrast. There are brief moments of it that are more sweet than serious, but it adds weight to this increasingly more enjoyable quartet at the end of a string of six, with some solo passages, greater expression, and some effective tugging of heart strings. The finale ends the work in much the way it began. It’s playful, friendly, with more intricate sounds and textures, not just another dry string quartet, and ends with…

I don’t mean to make my quick traversal of these works seem as if I don’t appreciate them, although I’m sure I don’t appreciate them at the level that I should, being the kind of prototype versions of what would later become some of the greatest string quartets in the history of classical music, and inspire others to continue to invent and create in the medium. That I get.

This op. 17 set is the last of the Haydn quartets we’ll be doing as a whole set, at least for a while. I’m eager to get to the op. 20 quartets, because that‘s where things really start to get exciting. Just go back and listen to some of those earliest works when we first started this weekend series, and compare one  of the op. 1 or 2 or even 9 quartets with op. 17 no. 5. We’re going somewhere, and I’m looking forward to continuing along this trajectory. Stay tuned.


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