String Quartet in D major, Hob. III/63, op. 64, no. 5, “The Lark”
March 26, 2017: Jerusalem String Quartet
Haydn composed his Opus 64 Quartets in 1790, a year of great change in his life owing to circumstances at Esterháza where he had been employed for thirty years. In February Prince Nicolaus’s wife died, and the grief-stricken Prince kept Haydn—his friend as well as his servant—constantly by his side. Haydn’s letters show that, much as he valued his friendship with the Prince, he felt imprisoned, frustrated, and lonely.
In September the music-loving Prince Nicolaus died. His successor, Prince Paul Anton II, did not care for music and dismissed most of the music staff, though he continued to pay Haydn’s salary, requiring him to supply music only for occasional functions. Haydn was free at last to pursue other interests and embarked on his first trip to London with violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who had been trying to lure him there for years. Haydn quartet scholar László Somfai suggested that the “stronger profile” of the last two Opus 64 Quartets—the Lark and No. 6 in E-flat major—owed to these great changes in Haydn’s life.
The six Opus 64 Quartets are known as the “second” set of “Tost” quartets because of their dedication to Johann Tost, former violinist in the Esterháza orchestra who by this time had become a cloth merchant. (Haydn had also dedicated to Tost his six previous quartets, published in two groups of three as Opus 54 and 55.) Haydn’s relationship with Tost was complicated because Tost apparently profited unscrupulously from selling some of Haydn’s symphonies and quartets in Paris, but he clearly esteemed him as a musician. Though the Quartets may have been commissioned by Tost, several commentators have suggested that it was wealthy patron Maria Anna von Gerlischek (or Jerlischek; Fräulein Nanette in Haydn’s letters) who urged Haydn to compose them. She had ascended to head housekeeper at Esterháza after Prince Nicolaus’s wife died, and she married Tost when he returned to Austria.
The D major Quartet, op. 64, no. 5, became known as “The Lark” because of the soaring, circling violin melody in the first movement. The designation, though fitting, was not attached by Haydn, nor was the Quartet’s other less famous nickname, “Hornpipe,” which refers to the merry Finale’s fleeting resemblance to an old English sailors’ dance.
The opening movement’s elegantly prancing staccato provides the perfect foil for the first violin’s exquisite “lark” melody in high register. This beloved theme lies at the heart of one of the movement’s most ingenious features—a second recapitulation after he had already produced one in the home key. This produces a wonderful sense of spaciousness and a chance to hear the lovely melody yet again. Equally striking is the sharply modulating transition to his second theme, which begins with a cascade of triplets that takes on a prominent role in the development section.
The intimate slow movement follows Haydn’s usual plan—A-B-A with the middle section unfolding in the minor mode. This “B” section turns out to be an imaginative variation on the material of the outer section. Variation also plays a key role in the return of “A,” especially in the added figuration for the first violin.
In the wittily elegant minuet Haydn revels in impish grace notes, metric shifts between groups of twos and threes, and unexpected chromatic inflections. His trio section is remarkable for its chromatic minor-mode counterpoint.
At breakneck pace in exhilarating perpetual motion, the Finale unfolds in A-B-A form, with elements of sonata form evident in the developmental nature of the middle section. This imaginative minor-mode fugato brilliantly brings out the main theme’s contrapuntal potential without an interruption in the steady stream of fast notes and shines the spotlight equally on all four participants.
© Jane Vial Jaffe