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JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)

String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”)

October 17, 2021: Escher String Quartet

When Count Joseph Erdödy commissioned the Opus 76 Quartets in 1796, Haydn had recently returned to Vienna from the second of his highly successful London visits. He had always composed with confidence, but a certain new boldness in his style may have come from the realization that the entire Western world considered him the greatest living composer. The six “Erdödy” Quartets show formal experiments (continued, as mentioned above, in his Opus 77 quartets) both within or instead of sonata-form movements, a new profundity in their extremely slow-paced Adagios, fast “modern” minuets—scherzos in all but name—and more weight and novel tonal approaches in their finales.

In June 1797 Haydn played some or all of the quartets on the piano for Swedish diplomat Frederik Silverstolpe, who considered them “more than masterly and full of new thoughts.” The Quartets were completed in time for a September 1797 performance at Eisenstadt as part of the grand festivities surrounding the visit of the Viceroy of Hungary, Palatine Archduke Joseph. Count Erdödy’s rights to the Quartets precluded their being published until 1799. That year English music historian Charles Burney wrote to Haydn that he “never received more pleasure from instrumental music: [the Quartets] are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects.”

The B-flat major Quartet exudes the composer’s supreme confidence and originality: in one of the greatest openings in chamber music, the lovely first violin melody rises out of a chord sustained by the three lower instruments in a wonderful sunrise effect that earned the Quartet its nickname. Several commentators have remarked on the feeling of growth that this idea initiates in the movement. The continuation of the main theme brings great contrast with an energetic idea that fosters all the fiery passages in the movement, including the remarkable fortissimo bursts that close the exposition and recapitulation. The second theme uses the “sunrise” idea of the opening but in a kind of mirror image—the cello plays a winding descent as the others sustain the chord. Throughout the movement one hears the kind of mastery that so impressed Beethoven as he began writing string quartets with his Opus 18 series.

Haydn’s Adagio somberly explores the possibilities of its first five notes. For a major-mode movement, this is one of the most dark-hued in the repertoire and seems to create a direct link with the poetic slow movements of Beethoven’s later quartets. Delicate filigree erupts not merrily but poignantly and the great downward leaps at the ends of sections seem to release but not totally relieve built-up tension. The second half, which begins like the opening, exaggerates these qualities with more filigree and wider plunges.

For his fast Menuetto Haydn takes a little repeated two-note slur and fashions two entire sections from it. The second much longer section includes a varied return to the first, signaled by the little repeated slur in the cello—a nice bit of humor. Partway through this return, the focus again shifts briefly to the cello, soon followed by the viola. The Menuetto ends with another subtle touch of humor as twice the upward arpeggio fails to resolve in its own register. The contrasting trio evokes a truly rustic atmosphere with its folklike drones in the manner of a musette or bagpipes.

The finale is a little masterpiece based on what some suspect is an English folk tune heard on his travels, but which he treats to sophisticated bits of contrapuntal and rhythmic manipulations. The matching first and third sections surround a no less jolly minor-mode section that contains several impish surprises. Following the return of the opening section Haydn takes us on an extended whirlwind ride, suddenly picking up speed only to shift to yet a higher speed for a virtuosic thrill.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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