HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 17, Nos. 3, 5 and 6 (Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.550854)
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Though he became the world's most famous composer of his time, Franz Joseph Haydn could well be described as a late starter. Born in 1732, his father was, in his spare time, the local church organist, and his mother sang in the church choir. Franz was, however, taught music by a relative, before being sent to Vienna as a choirboy. While there he was taught the violin and clavier, and the basics of harmony. He had sufficient early promise to have composed a mass at the age of 13, and by then he was a private teacher. But how he found sufficient money to live during the next 14 years is still unclear, though at the age of 27 he had a secure income as musician to Count Morzin, and at that time his career as a composer began in earnest. Sadly, Morzin quickly squandered a fortune and disbanded his orchestra, a fact that was to prove fortunate for Haydn.
He had to find new employment, and that came from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in 1761, and Haydn was to remain with the family for the next 30 years. His task was to provide the Prince with whatever music he should require, and to act as the deputy conductor of the orchestra. In the service of the Esterházy house at that time were 12 musicians, but the orchestra was to grow to 22 or 24 musicians and was a fine group of players. The size of these orchestras was largely to shape his output. Over the initial period of 14 years he was to compose over 50 symphonies, together with concertos, sacred music, five operas and numerous instrumental works.
And yet the 'golden period' was still to come, when in 1776 he was appointed Kapellmeister to the house of Esterházy. His period of opera composer flourished, but as they became more 'serious' the court became less interested.
He rarely moved from the area, but in 1791 was tempted to visit England, and was paid to bring with him an opera, six symphonies and 20 other works. He was, in fact, to visit again the year later, and the 12 symphonies he wrote for those two occasions have become his best known.
The later years were spent in Vienna, where he died in 1809 of 'old age' hastened by Napoleon's siege of the city. A sample of his output lists 106 symphonies, 27 operas (many now lost), 14 masses, cantatas, 38 piano trios, 77 string quartets, and numerous works for solo instruments.
The three quartets come from 1771- 1772 and were originally described as Divertimentos for four or more instruments, as at this time he did not even view the string quartet as a medium in its own right. They are cast in the conventional four movements, and it has to be said that they are of more academic rectitude than invested with melodic inspiration. Equally Haydn was still largely using the quartet as a solo for violin with the other instruments providing the accompaniment. If we look upon them as the forerunners of the great quartets to follow, even at this stage Haydn had taken the quartet format to a new level of excellence. There is, however, a degree of experimentation, the Sixth quartet being in the reverse order of movements, the Presto opening, a Minuet coming second, the slow movement third, and the conventional opening Allegro as the finale. That it does not really work out is obvious, but it is a guide to the fact that Haydn was flexing his mind to new structures. We also find the use of some unusual harmonies in the Minuet of the Third quartet, a surprisingly sombre movement for this title. Indeed, for reasons unknown, this is a rather dark and sad work. The Third, by contrast, is often a dramatic and volatile score, the third movement frequently changing its mood. Maybe they are not the great works of his later years, but they fill our knowledge of his development as a composer.