String Quartet in G, Op. 77, No. 1
October 17, 2021: Escher String Quartet
In 1799 the young Prince Lobkowitz commissioned Haydn, the most celebrated composer in Europe, to write a set of six quartets, at the same time commissioning six from Beethoven, Vienna’s rising star. Haydn completed two, the present one in G major and a second in F major, and he even wrote the middle two movements of the next, which was to have been in D minor, but then he stopped. The two quartets were published in 1802 as Opus 77 with a dedication to the prince, and the two separate movements appeared in 1806 as Opus 103.
After composing some eighty-three quartets—trailblazing works that greatly defined the genre—why did Haydn abandon the commission and quartet writing altogether? It is likely, as his biographer Robbins Landon suggests, that he didn’t want to compete with Beethoven, his former pupil, whose response to the commission was his wonderful Opus 18 set. Now known as Beethoven’s “early” quartets in view of his later contributions, these were nevertheless considered groundbreaking in their day. In any case, Haydn had nothing to apologize for in his masterful two Opus 77 Quartets, but he was feeling his age and wanted to invest his energy in large vocal works, an area in which Beethoven could not yet compete.
The Opus 77 Quartets represent Haydn at his best, providing examples of all the traits we find so characteristic of the mature master: well-proportioned sonata forms sometimes based on a single theme, frequent use of harmonies related by the interval of a third, weighty slow movements, fast minuets that are essentially scherzos, and reliance on folk idioms. And yet they also show him still stretching his creative powers. In the first movement of the G major Quartet, for example, he expands his development section to equal the proportion of the exposition.
This first movement’s main theme projects a martial character, based, according to Haydn scholar Bence Szabolcsi, on a Hungarian recruiting song. Haydn soon introduces a running triplet figure that he cleverly weaves around the martial idea and around the lyrical second theme introduced by the second violin. His development section includes a “false reprise” that features this second idea in the “wrong” key. Having dealt at length with this theme in the development, he omits it in the true recapitulation and continues with his coda.
The solemn slow movement (in the third-related key of E-flat) gives a soloistic role to the first violin, as Haydn had done in many of his preceding quartets. He relies on a kind of free sonata form though without a clear second theme. Among his felicitous harmonic excursions and devices is a wonderfully unexpected shift in the development that brings on a hushed rendering of the main theme in a distant key.
The Presto scherzo-minuet shows the master’s unabated energy in the fast pace and acrobatic leaps. Toward the end of the first of his three sections (minuet-trio-minuet), the violin reaches a note unprecedented in the quartet literature: a super-high D. The trio suggests a rustic peasant dance but in a new style for Haydn. Was he perhaps, as Landon wonders, experimenting in Beethoven’s language to please the prince, or might he even have perpetrated a subtle spoof?
Haydn’s spirited finale returns to his Gypsy-Croatian-Eastern roots in its melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic style, though scholars have not identified a direct folk quotation. With his characteristic fashioning of the second theme out of the first, Haydn makes this sonata-form movement essentially “monothematic.” The finale offers the crowning example of Haydn’s successful blend of folk and “art” music.
© Jane Vial Jaffe