Founded in 1989, the Quatuor Alcan of the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean Symphony Orchestra has earned the enviable reputation of being the best Canadian ensemble of its kind since the advent of the Orford [...]
They spoke about it
History has handed down to us the image of “Papa Haydn” as a man who was benevolent, affable, good-natured and blessed with a wonderful sense of humour. To remember him only for this image, however, is to forget that he was also audacious, energetic and proud, a realist with a pragmatic spirit and an astute businessman. It is also to forget that his genius was acclaimed throughout Europe, and that no one would have contested his status as the “father of modern music.”
The string quartet was developed as of about 1760. A new musical genre, its origin can be traced to diverse sources in Italy, France, Austria and Bohemia. Contrary to the symphony, which is derived from the operatic overture, the string quartet is not the result of the evolution of one precise early music genre. Rather, it developed little by little as the fruit of a variety of individual experiments. In this respect, those of Joseph Haydn were the most decisive, and he can be considered as the true creator of the genre. His ten Fürnberg Quartets (ca. 1757-1760) are five-movement suites, similar to the divertimenti for string quartets.
The 18 quartets Opus 7, 17 and 20 (1769-1772), however, each have four movements, including a minuet. They are also more refined, more expressive, and more serious (several of the opus 20 quartets end with a fugue) than their predecessors. When Haydn published the six Opus 33 quartets in 1781, he declared: “They are altogether of a new and particular style, since I haven’t written any for 10 years.” These works had a great impact, influencing many composers, including Mozart. They accorded new importance to thematic work, while achieving a well-balanced synthesis between the “galant” style and the “savant” (scholarly) style. The string quartet was then acclaimed as an established genre.
Haydn went on to write many more, and each was an experimental field containing many hidden treasures. Haydn wrote 78 string quartets in all. In 1799, Prince Lobkowitz commissioned Haydn to write some new quartets, no doubt a series of six as was the fashion. Prince Lob-kowitz, one of Haydn’s and Beethoven’s major patrons, was himself an accomplished musician. He played the violin, the cello and sang, in fact singing the bass part in The Creation on several occasions.
Haydn started working on the commission, but at the end of the year had only completed two of the quartets. He had been absorbed by the amount of work required by writing a major oratorio, The Seasons, which he completed only by 1801. In a letter dated July 1, 1800, Haydn admitted to the Leipzig publisher Breitkopf Härtel that “the difficulties encountered in composing The Seasons and my current weakness prevent me from working on two things at once.” It was also as of 1779 that G.A. Griesinger began to act as an intermediary between Breitkopf Härtel and Haydn, who had the annoying habit of not answering promptly the publisher’s letters.
The correspondence between Griesinger and Breitkopf Härtel shows in a lively way Haydn’s progress in composing the quartets. In a letter dated July 4, 1801, he notes that “Haydn is now working on six quartets for Prince Lobkowitz.” On July 24, he wrote that “only four have been completed,” which was in fact not true. Around that time, Haydn was devoting himself to the Schöpfungmesse (Creation Mass), to be premiered on the following September 13. On November 4, Griesinger simply writes that the quartets “are not all finished.” On January 20, 1802, he reports, with regard to the two completed quartets, that “Lobkowitz’s Kappelmeister, Wranitzky, asked Haydn for permission to have them engraved for printing at Artaria.
Haydn would have preferred waiting until all six were available, but gave his consent.” Several weeks later, on March 20, Griesinger says that “Artaria will have to wait before publishing the two quartets until Haydn has composed a third, on which he is now working.” On April 3, he tells that he heard the two quartets played at Baron Spielmann’s and that “they were both highly applauded.” At about the same time, Haydn put aside the quartet he had just started in order to concentrate his efforts on the Harmoniemesse which, begun in 1802, was to be premiered on September 8. It was the last large-scale work completed by Haydn. It was also in September 1802 that the Viennese publisher Artaria finally published the two quartets written in 1799. They carry the Opus number 77 and are dedicated to Prince Lobkowitz. Breitkopf Härtel in turn published them in October of the same year. They were also published in London and Paris.
During this time, the writing of the third quartet is at a stalemate. On November 2, Griesinger admitted that “the quartets are at the same point.” It would seem that Haydn was able to work on the third quartet during 1803, because Griesinger notes, on January 25, 1804, that “with regard to the quartet, he has finished the allegro, an andante with variations and the minuet and trio, and all that is missing is an allegro.” The existence of the opening allegro is more than improbable. Also, the final allegro never saw the light of day because the aging Haydn’s health had declined irreversibly since 1799-1800. Constantly tired, afflicted with memory loss and unable to concentrate, he could no longer write. It is with emotion that Griesinger, in an August 21, 1805 letter, writes: “His body is unfortunately becoming increasingly fragile, the slightest draft bothers him. He has even given up hope of completing the quartet he had started.”
On April 2, 1806, Griesinger sent the two completed movements of the quartet to Breitkopf Härtel. About the work, Haydn asserted to him, “it is my latest-born, but it still resembles me.” The quartet appeared in October 1806, accompanied by Haydn’s visiting card on which were reproduced the first bars of his vocal quartet Der Greis (The Old Man) along with the first lines of the text: “All my strenght is gone, I am old and weak.” The title page indicates: “82nd and Last Quartet… dedicated to Monsieur le comte Maurice de Fries.” Haydn protested this indication, claiming that his was really his 83rd quartet, referring to the complete edition of his works undertaken by Pleyel.
The following month, the work was published by André with the Opus number 103. Artaria published the quartet in May 1807 with the title “3rd and Last Quartet…Opus 77,” thus pointing out the link with the two other Opus 77 quartets. Although these quartets are from Haydn’s last creative period, they are not the work of a declining mind. Quite to the contrary, until age and ill health took their toll on his body, the composer was in full possession of his means. Even in his final works, his inspiration sparkles with a limitless imagination and exquisite sensitivity governed by clear reasoning. He built themes with incomparable command and played with their elements in combinations that were always new and unexpected. His creative spirit did not support one single wrinkle of age.
The first movement of the Quartet in G major, Opus 77, No. 1 is an Allegro moderato characterized by the well-articulated march rhythm of its main theme, while the second theme is more lyrical, adding a feeling of greater intensity. A superb Adagio in a mono-thematic sonata form without repeats follows. Its theme, first exposed by the instruments in unison, is directly inspired by elements borrowed from the first movement. The third movement, a Menuetto marked Presto, is in fact a lively, surprisingly ardent Scherzo with a first violin part that explores the instrument’s top register to dizzying heights, incorporating leaps of two octaves or more. As with the two preceding movements, the theme is first played in unison. Enlivened by accents in popular style, the writing includes several canonic sequences.
The Quartet in F Major, Opus 77, No. 2 also starts with an Allegro moderato. The first theme is calm and expressive and leads directly into the second theme, in the second violin part. The Menuetto, also marked Presto, occupies here the second and not, as is usually the case, the third position. It distinguishes itself mostly by the rhythmic play between the binary and ternary beats. The trio, which is to be played pianissimo, creates a wonderful contrast which surprises the listener. The third movement is a serene, tranquil Andante which is part sonata, part variation and part rondo. The theme is first played by the first violin and the cello, to which are added, at the repeat, the second violin and the viola. The richness of invention with which Haydn varies the return of the theme is of the greatest inspiration. The finale, Vivace assai, also a monothematic structure, is a lively and radiant “polonaise à la hongroise” (Hungarian style).
The Quartet, Opus 103, which remained unfinished, is also a work of great inspiration. It begins with an Andante grazioso in B-flat major, filled with painful melancholy. It is in ternaty A-B-A’ form followed by a coda. The second movement, in D minor, is an unstable, nervous and extremely tense Menuetto ma non troppo presto. The trio, in D major, is of a more majestic, almost sacred, nature, no doubt because of its sober writing.
© Mario Lord