HAYDN: String Quartets Op. 50, Nos. 1- 3, 'Prussian' (Ibolya Toth/ Kodaly Quartet) (Naxos: 8.553983)
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String Quartet in Fsharp minor, Op. 50, No. 4, Hob. III: 47
String Quartet in Fmajor, Op. 50, No. 5, Hob. III: 48
String Quartet in Dmajor, Op. 50, No. 6, Hob. III: 49
Joseph Haydn was born in the village of Rohrau in 1732, the son of awheelwright. Trained at the choir-school of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna,he subsequently spent some years earning a living as best he could fromteaching and playing the violin or keyboard, and was able to profit fromassociation with the old composer Porpora, whose assistant he became. Haydn'sfirst appointment was in 1759 as Kapellmeister to a Bohemian nobleman, Countvon Morzin, whose kinsman had once served as patron to Vivaldi. This wasfollowed in 1761 by employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to one of the richest menin the Empire, Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy, succeeded after his death in 1762by Prince Nikolaus. On the death in 1766 of the elderly and somewhatobstructive Kapellmeister Gregor Werner, who had found much to complain about inthe professionalism of his young and resented deputy, Haydn succeeded to hisposition, to remain in the same employment, nominally at least, for the rest ofhis life.
On the completion of the magnificent palace at Esterhaza in theHungarian plains under Prince Nikolaus, Haydn assumed command of an increasedmusical establishment. Here he had responsibility for the musical activities ofthe palace, which included the provision and direction of instrumental music,opera and music for the theatre, as well as music for the church. For hispatron he provided a quantity of chamber music of all kinds, particularly forthe Prince's own peculiar instrument, the baryton, a bowed string instrumentwith sympathetic strings that could also be plucked and one that the Englishscholar Dr Burney thought to have its only proper use on a desert island, wherea castaway might accompany himself.
Prince Nikolaus died in 1790 and Haydn found himself able to accept aninvitation to visit London. There he provided music for concert seasonsorganized by the violinist-impresario Salomon. A second successful visit toLondon in 1794 and 1795 was followed by a return to duty with the Esterhazyfamily, the new head of which had settled principally at the family property inEisenstadt, where Haydn had started his career with them. Much of the year,however, was to be spent in Vienna, where Haydn passed his final years, dyingin 1809, as the French armies of Napoleon approached the city yet again.
Haydn lived during the period of the eighteenth century that saw thedevelopment of instrumental music from the age of Bach and Handel to the era ofthe classical sonata, with its tripartite first-movement form and complementarythree or four movements, the basis now of much instrumental composition. Thestring quartet itself, which came to represent classical music in its purestform, grew from a genre that was relatively insignificant, at least in name,the Divertimento, into music of greater weight, complexity andsubstance, although Haydn, like any great master, knew well how to conceal thetechnical means by which he achieved his ends. The exact number of stringquartets that Haydn wrote is not known, although he himself listed some 83. Theearlier of these, often under the title Divertimento, proclaim clearlyenough their origin and purpose. Haydn's last quartet, Opus 103, started in1803, remained unfinished and coincided with the appearance of quartets of anew and original kind, from Haydn's recalcitrant and ungrateful pupil,Beethoven. Haydn himself once claimed to have discovered the string quartet byaccident. The discovery, if such it was, has continued to have a far-reachingeffect on the development of Western music.
Haydn had contemplatedwriting a new set of string quartets as early as 1784, but events led him todelay the composition of the six that make up the set of Opus 50 until 1787.
Two years earlier Mozart had completed a set of quartets over which he hadtaken considerable trouble, dedicating them to Haydn, with whom he had nowestablished friendly contact in Vienna. Mozart's quartets owe much to Haydn'sexample and now Haydn's new quartets have a comparable debt to Mozart. The setthat constitutes Opus 50 was published by Artaria and was dedicated to KingFrederick William II of Prussia, the cello-playing king for whom Mozart, aftervisiting Potsdam in 1789, wrote his three so-called Prussian Quartets, andwhose favour Beethoven sought in his first cello sonatas in 1796. While Mozartensures the cello a certain prominence, Haydn is very much more discreet. Inpublishing the set Haydn showed a degree of duplicity quite worthy ofBeethoven, allowing early publication to Forster in London, anticipating therelease of Artaria's edition, which should, by rights, have been made availablein London through Artaria's commercial partners, Longman and Broderip.
The first of the Opus50 set, the Quartet in B flat major, Opus 50, No. 1, opens withan Allegro in barred C time (2/2), the first time that Haydn had done soin such a movement, showing, it has been suggested, the influence of Mozart.
The cello introduces the movement with a repeated B flat, which some have seenas a tribute to the King and his favoured instrument. The second subject isderived from the first and the repeated note against which the first part ofthe first subject is heard becomes a feature of the movement, taken up by thesecond and then the first violin and providing an accompanying pedal to thesecond subject. The repeated note introduces the central development, with itsharmonic surprises, and returns as it leads, in the recapitulation, at triplespeed, to the end of the movement. The E flat major Adagio is in theform of a theme and variations. The theme itself is introduced by the firstviolin, followed by the second. The second variation is in E flat minor,followed by a return to the original key and theme and a coda. The thirdmovement Minuet, with motivic links with the preceding movements, framesa contrasting trio and is followed by a final Vivace, in the nowusual tripartite general form, but with surprise after surprise, as theprincipal theme and key seem about to make their definitive return, eventuallyaccomplished.
The Quartet inC major, Opus 50, No. 2, opens sotto voce with a first violin principalsubject, marked by sudden strong accents. Antiphonal ascending scales fromcello and first violin lead to the second subject and the exposition ends witha series of ascending arpeggios for the lower instruments. Contrapuntaluse of the opening theme is made in the central development. Therecapitulation, notably the transition from first to second subject, finds roomfor imaginative use of the chromatic theme, and the movement ends with a returnto the cello, viola and second violin arpeggios with which theexposition had come to an end. The Adagio allows the second violin thefirst statement of the F major theme, then taken up by the first violin andduly embellished. The central section of the movement gives the first violinleisure to explore the higher register of the instrument, followed by a returnto an elaborated version of the first material. The Minuet ischaracterized by a descending triadic melodic figure which finds its ascendingcounterpart in the contrasting trio. The opening rhythmic figure heardfrom second violin and viola in the Finale has an important andrecurrent part in what follows, ending the exposition, starting the centraldevelopment and duly providing an element of the recapitulation and final coda.