The Eybler Quartet came together in late 2004 to explore the works of the first century of the string quartet, with a healthy attention to lesser known composers such as their namesake, Joseph Leopold [...]
They spoke about it
Haydn, Op. 33
In the summer and early autumn of 1781, Joseph Haydn began work on the six quartets we know today as Op. 33, or more eruditely as Hoboken III: 37-42. They are also known popularly as the “Jungferne” quartets, the “Russian” quartets and “gli scherzi”.
In the late autumn of that year, Haydn sent letters to several “gentleman amateurs, great connoisseurs and patrons of music” inviting them to subscribe to manuscript parts of “for the price of 6 ducats… 6 Quartets for 2 violins, viola and violoncello concertante… written in a new and special way.” That Haydn was in a position to send such a letter was due to the wonderful gift Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy gave his Kapellmeister in 1779 – license to write whatever works he chose for sale outside of his duties at the Esterhazy court.
Haydn’s German phrase describing the pieces was “von einer Neu, gantz besonderer Art”, so indeed, Haydn’s “new and special way” might also be rendered as “new and completely different” or even “novel and entirely exquisite”.
To put the price into perspective, a decent set of clothes tailored in Vienna cost 7 Ducats; Haydn’s official salary from the Prince was 600 Ducats/annum, although in fact, with additional awards, his earnings were nearer 1000.
Three of Haydn’s letters trying to sell subscriptions for the quartets still exist. The first is addressed to Johann Kaspar Lavater, a Swiss poet, and one of the leading exponents of the Sturm und Drang movement. The second is addressed to Robert Schlecht, Cistercian Abbott of Salmannsweiler in Land Baden (a musically significant hub) a repeat customer, having acquired Haydn’s Symphony No. 24 in 1773. The third is to Prince Oettingen-Wallerstein, whose court was a hotbed of chamber music activity. Beyond hiring an excellent orchestra and fine composers, he encouraged traveling musicians to perform at court there, hosting, among many others, Beethoven in 1787 and Haydn on his first journey to London, in 1791.
Haydn anticipated selling 16 such subscriptions, representing approximately one sixth of his annual official pay. In December, 1781, he sent the quartets to his primary publisher, the Viennese house of Artaria, understanding that they would be published after he had satisfied his subscribers. Artaria, however, had the pieces engraved very quickly, and offered them for sale on December 29, 1781. This enraged Haydn, who stood to lose a considerable sum, and he immediately ceased all further correspondence with Artaria (Artaria’s selling price for the engraved quartets was 4 gulden, which represented about 14% of the 6 Ducats Haydn was asking for the manuscript parts). Two weeks later, realizing perhaps the advantage of the long-term relationship with Artaria, Haydn had calmed down; within a month of that, Haydn offered the quartets to Hummel in Berlin, and Forester in London, both of whom published them that year. The Hummel edition featured an engraving of a young maiden, or “Jungferne”, the first of the popular names for the quartets. All of this activity points to the significance and popularity of the works, which were consumed almost exclusively by amateur performers; the notion of a public, professional string quartet concert in most of Europe was still several decades away.
The first documented performance of the quartets was in the chambers of the Russian Grand Duke Paul (later Tsar Paul I). Haydn inscribed a dedication on the manuscript copy of the quartets that he gave to the Grand Duke, hence the second popular nickname, the “Russian” Quartets.
The third popular name, “gli scherzi” or “the Jokes”, speaks to the music itself. For the first time in his quartets, Haydn replaces the minuet movement with one entitled scherzo; while all six movements share essentially the same form, they demonstrate incredible variety of texture and invention. In the trio section of the scherzo of Op. 33, No. 2 in E flat major (Hob. III: 38, which is itself known as “the Joke”), Haydn specifies fingerings in the first violin part that imply sliding between the pitches (perhaps a slightly tipsy tavern fiddler?). The last movement of the same piece features an elaborate joke, with several false endings, finishing with precisely the same two measures as it began. Haydn again uses the technique of reprise in the opening movement of Op. 33, No. 5 (Hob. III: 41, the “How do you do?”) again using a two-measure unit. As these pieces were intended for private consumption, they are also full of jokes for the performers themselves. One of our favourites is in the last movement of Op. 33, No. 4 (Hob. III: 40), in which the first violinist has awkward string crossings at breakneck speed, while the second violinist essentially fills in the first violinist’s part in the higher octave; what we hear is a simple line, what we see is Haydn torturing the first violinist, making him work a great deal harder than absolutely necessary!
© Patrick Jordan