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JOSEPH HAYDN (1732-1809)

String Quartet in G, Op. 33, No. 5


Haydn composed his six Opus 33 Quartets in 1781, nine years after his previous set of six, op. 20. A debate has raged for over a century about whether Haydn marked the attainment of perfect Classic Viennese style with these new quartets when he noted to possible buyers they were written “in a new and special way.” The latest thinking is that “new and special” was a phrase designed to sell works rather than a statement about arriving at the perfection of Classical style, since that would ignore the merits of the Opus 20 Quartets, the symphonies written around 1772, or, as scholar Robbins Landon suggests, the opera L’infideltà delusa or the Missa Cellensis of 1782.

What scholars and listeners do agree on is that there is something different about the Opus 33 Quartets, chiefly a tendency toward popular, folklike expression and outwardly simple structures that hide an inner complexity—and, yes, they include a remarkable profusion of Classic stylistic elements whether or not they represent a turning point. Commentators have speculated, with the usual cautionary asides about art and life circumstances, that the lightness and humor of these Quartets were linked to Haydn’s personal happiness at this time—the beginning of his affair with singer Luigia Polzelli, hired by Prince Esterházy in 1779. Both were in unhappy marriages at the time and she became Haydn’s mistress by 1781. Over a decade later he was writing her from London: “Perhaps I shall never again regain the good humor that I used to have when I was with you.”

Some of Haydn’s greatest wit and lightheartedness lies in the Opus 33 finales, which move away from sonata form or the contrapuntal complexity of fugues in favor of rondos or variation forms. On the other hand, and no doubt for balance, these works show more profundity in their slow movements. As to his “Scherzo” and “Scherzando” movements, though they are the first in his quartets to be so-designated instead of “Minuet,” they actually differ little from his previous minuets. Thus the aptness of the sometime nickname “Gli scherzi” (with scherzos) for the Opus 33 Quartets applies not so much to these movements as to the entire set’s many “jokes”—the literal Italian meaning of scherzi.

Haydn first published the Opus 33 Quartets in 1782 with no dedication, but added one to Grand Duke Paul of Russia with the second edition of 1796, which led to their most common nickname “Russian.” This belated dedication had to do with the fact that most, if not all, received their first performance at the Vienna home of the Duke’s wife, Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna, on Christmas Day, 1781. The Opus 33 Quartets gained instant popularity, so much so that fraud was immediately detected when a composer from Mainz tried to pass them off as his own.

Haydn begins the G major Quartet—likely the first in order of composition—with a quiet, graceful “curtsey” or “bow” in a rhythm that prompted the English mid-nineteenth-century nickname “How do you do.” Many commentators have seen its cadential gesture as a supreme example of his wit—an ending as a beginning. The immediate contrast of the rhythmic main theme with its bold, repeating bass notes sets the stage for an almost symphonic movement in which Haydn often thickens the texture with double stops. Unlike the monothematic tendencies in many of the other sonata-form movements of the Russian Quartets, Haydn’s second theme introduces a lyrical idea over a cello pedal. In his development section he takes apart and recombines his thematic fragments with creative resolve, and his recapitulation expands into what approaches a second development.

The slow movement unfolds in a tragic mood with the first violin “singing” an aria-like lament over individualistic accompaniment lines by the other three instruments. Many commentators have noted that Haydn may have been influenced by Orfeo’s “Che puro ciel” from Gluck’s opera Orfeo e Euridice, which he had directed at Esterhazá in 1776. The four instruments finally come together at the end in a forceful unison phrase, capped by a unison pizzicato that has elicited much speculation about whether it can fit the somber mood or should be heard as Haydenesque humor.

Haydn certainly makes jokes in the third movement, taking the Italian term “scherzo” in its literal meaning. He teases the listener with meter-busting displacements and shows supreme comic timing when, just after seeming to get on track, he inserts a bar of rest. The graceful regularity of the trio provides tongue-in-cheek foil.

The Finale, marked Allegretto, unfolds as an easy-going siciliano theme with three variations. The decoration increases in the third variation, first for the viola then the cello, and Haydn caps the movement with a presto coda that gallops toward the finish—but not without some final soft-loud playfulness.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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