HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 3, Nos. 3 - 6 (Ibolya Toth/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.555704)
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Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) Romanus Hoffstetter ? (1742-1815)
String Quartets Op. 3, Nos. 3-6
The question of the authenticty of Haydns so-called Op. 3 Quartets has engaged the attention of scholars since the mid-nineteenth century. Nearly every leading Haydn specialist from C.F.Pohl to H.C.Robbins Landon has published an opinion on the subject and it says something for the intractable nature of the problem that there is still no common agreement. Haydn himself is not a great deal of help in the matter. The works were omitted from the Entwurf-Katalog, the running catalogue of his works he kept from 1765 until after the London visits, but found their way into the Haydn-Verzeichnis prepared in 1805 under the composers direct supervision by his faithful factotum Joseph Elssler. Haydn also accepted the six works as genuine in the edition of his complete string quartets published by Ignaz Pleyel. Unfortunately, both strands of evidence are not beyond questioning. The inclusion of the quartets in the Haydn-Verzeichnis may have been based on their appearance three years earlier in the Pleyel edition. Pleyel claimed in his accompanying catalogue of the complete quartets that all the works had been avowed by the author but László Somfai thinks it very unlikely that Haydn ever saw the words avoués par lautheur. The meagre bibliographical evidence has been painstakingly sifted and the works themselves subjected to every kind of analytical technique known to musicology. Haydns authorship still remains doubtful but so too does that of Pater Romanus Hoffstetter the most commonly favoured alternative. The jury is still out and likely to remain out unless a sensational discovery is made which settles the matter once and for all.
The six quartets which comprise Op. 3 were published in Paris by Bailleux in 1777. If Haydn were the author it is extremely unlikely that the works were composed much later than 1764 although at least one scholar has suggested a composition date in the early 1770s, which seems highly unlikely. Unusually for Haydn, the works survive in the printed edition only, which casts additional doubt on their authenticity. Furthermore, Robbins Landon and Alan Tyson discovered traces of an inscription on the parts which clearly indicated that the plates originally bore an attribution to Signor Hofstetter. From this they drew the not unreasonable conclusion, given the dubious business ethics of many eighteenth-century publishers, that Bailleux replaced Hoffstetters name with Haydns in order to boost potential sales. Thus, the real composer of the Op. 3 quartets was undoubtedly Signor Hofstetter Pater Romanus Hoffstetter. Neat though this solution, is it is not entirely unassailable. Neither does it prove beyond reasonable doubt that the quartets really are by Hoffstetter. To do so it would be necessary to prove that they could not possibly be by anyone else, a difficult if not impossible task to achieve given the external and internal evidence. In short, we are faced with a set of works which may be by Haydn, or Hoffstetter or neither.
The quartets themselves, in terms of internal stylistic evidence, also pose problems since there is music within them that is both typical and atypical of Haydn. The same can be said for Hoffstetter, whose string quartets have been studied closely in the light of his possible authorship of Op. 3. Reginald Barrett-Ayres, one of the scholars who has examined Hoffstetters quartets, has found little stylistic similarity between his extant string quartets and the works of Op. 3. They bear a certain stylistic kinship with Haydns earliest quartets but then so too do those of a number of other composers active during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. They are competent enough works to suggest that their composer might have been capable of writing Op. 3 but the fact remains that none of the authentic quartets possesses the melodic charm and sureness of touch of movements like the famous Serenade from Op. 3, No. 5. On the evidence we possess, Op. 3, if indeed it is the work of Hoffstetter, represents his finest set of quartets.
Not a great deal is known about the life of Father Roman Hoffstetter. He was born on 24th April 1742 and took his vows in the Benedictine monastery in Amorbach in 1763. He was ordained as a priest in 1766 and remained at Amorbach until the monasterys dissolution in 1803, serving variously as Prior, Prior Culinaris and, from 1783, Master of the Kitchens. He was also appointed Regens Chori at some uncertain date and found time to write a considerable body of instrumental music including several viola concertos. He was a close friend of the brilliant composer Johann Martin Kraus, which suggests that he was a man of some wit, charm and erudition. Hoffstetter moved to Miltenberg in 1803 and died there on 21st May 1815.
The four quartets on this recording include the most famous work in Op. 3, the so-called Serenade Quartet, Op. 3, No. 5, and a two-movement work which Sir Donald Tovey thought represented either an incomplete quartet or two completely unrelated movements. Tovey was probably unaware that there was a tradition of writing two-movement quartets during the eighteenth century. Franz Xaver Richter, one of the most important composers at Mannheim, wrote two-movement works and Kraus, his former pupil and one of the undisputed giants of late-eighteenth-century music, composed at least two two-movement string quartets in the late 1770s. Nonetheless, a two-movement work is very peculiar during this period and there must have been some reason why the work was published in this form. The remaining quartets, including the fifth of the set, are cast in the conventional four-movement cycle with the Menuetto placed after the slow movement.
In a sense the question of authorship, while undoubtedly fascinating, is largely irrelevant, since the music has a life of its own. There is much to admire in these quartets whoever the composer may have been. They are elegant, neatly composed works with lively outer movements, gentle, graceful slow movements and the kind of lilting, intoxicating minuets that are an integral part of Austrian music of the period. There is little in the way of complex development of thematic material but each movement has its own logic and inner musical certainty. These are real quartets, not scaled-down symphonies, and their composer revels in the intimate sound and subtle textural possibilities of the four solo instruments. They are unsophisticated works when compared with the great string quartets of Haydn and Mozart but their freshness and sense of joy is very appealing. One can imagine Haydn leafing through the works late in life, smiling at their occasional naivety and, whether sure of his authorship or not, feeling unashamed to claim them as his own.