History of the String Quartet – Haydn

 For the summer term of 2011 Matthew Taylor gave a series of Lectures on the History of the String Quartet.  It was to be the first of an intended series ” and covered Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.  The notes produced for the series were intended to be more biographical than analytical.  That latter aspect was after all supplied by Matthew.  There were doubts by some as to whether the series would be a draw. Happily It turned out to be the best attended to date.


 Matthew Taylor will this term be giving the first in a projected series of the history of the string quartet and his first two lectures are based on quartets of Josef Haydn.

 Haydn very deservedly has been merited with the name, Father of the Symphony. Yet this may not be strictly applicable. There can be no question however that he would have been entitled to the name, Father of the String Quartet. There were symphonies before Haydn, although it was he who put the symphony on the map with 104 of them. There were no string quartets before Haydn. There was chamber music, frequently with two violins and harpsichord or cello continuo but the string quartet was devised, almost by accident, developed and sculpted into shape by one man, Josef Haydn (1732-1809).

 It came about round about 1754-57 when Haydn was teaching the children of Baron Furnberg and was making a career as a freelance musician. Furnberg, a gifted amateur musician, wanted some music for him and his colleagues to play. The instrumentation available happened to be two violins, viola and cello. For this combination Haydn wrote what he called divertimenti and they were an absolute hit. (Just as well it wasn’t piccolo, bassoon, double bass and kettledrum as the string quartet would have turned out differently). Early versions contained usually five or more movements including two minuets. Soon it settled into the standard four movements, two outer ones fast and in between a slow movement and minuet, following sonata form as in the symphonies which he did not embark upon until the Esterhazy years.

 Haydn kept to this formula in the 83 quartets he was to write afterwards apart from the Seven Last Words of Jesus Christ Op 51 which was a quartet rendering of an orchestral version of 1786 and also his last quartet, op 103, during the composition of which he felt, after managing two movements, too tired to finish and decided there and then to call it a day. The combination was taken up by Mozart and Beethoven with the latter, in his last quartets, sometimes adding further movements. The instrumental combination remained the constant nucleus although there were additions to the numbers. An extra viola by Mozart gave rise to the string quintet. In the case of Schubert on the other hand it was an additional cello. Schumann added a piano to have been attributed with the invention of the piano quintet – (actually Boccherini had done this some fifty years earlier with the fortepiano). The fact remains that underlying these expansions was the basic string quartet as we still know it. There was a tendency in the early 19th century to widen the range of the combination with the addition of the double bass. We best know it in Schubert’s Trout Quintet but it can be found in some lesser known composers such as Ferdinand Ries and Louis Spohr. Mendelssohn’s sextet contains the double bass. This addition changed the centre of musical gravity to give a deeper sonority. However, Schumann, and then Brahms following him, stuck to the pure Haydn-Beethoven form and it has remained a staple compositional form since.

 A word as to the character of the string quartet by one of the audience and not a musicologist. One’s reception and appreciation are bound to differ from person to person. Each has his/her own experiences. It is generally accepted that most people first encounter music through the orchestra and there can be no doubt that orchestral music has a far greater range of colour and dynamics than the chamber models. It is not that one is better than the other but that one is quite different to the other. An orchestra usually has a conductor directing the others and the players follow him/her and not each other. Quartet players play off each other and one can visibly see the eye to eye communication and the fleeting smile in an act of joint communion. They are playing for themselves and not for us. One can’t imagine in an orchestra the cellist on the third desk making eye contact with the second flute unless he plans on taking her to dinner afterwards and for whatever coda there may then follow.

 In an orchestra some instruments are silent for whole movements or for many bars and then entering at the composer’s will to add a touch of colour to heighten the atmosphere. The triangle player having a little tinkle in the third movement of Brahms fourth symphony comes to mind. In Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela the oboist has one note only, just the one note, which is too high for the solo cor anglais. This is an example of the best economic use of the orchestral palette. None of this however could be found in the string quartet. Here there are four players who are soloists and an ensemble at the same time. Each member is playing for most of the time and everything which is played has relevance. There is no room for waffling in the string quartet as there can be in an orchestral work.

 On the other hand, a solo recitalist, particularly a pianist, whilst not having recourse to variety of sound and colour has the floor to him/herself and can indulge in showing off and showmanship which end with the audience in raptures at such display. This would be anathema in a string quartet and to its audience.

 The sound of the string quartet is both unique and intense. For those coming to the quartet seeking the same frisson as in the orchestra or the bravura of the soloist there may well be disappointment. One needs to listen to a quartet from a different perspective. The difference is like that between watching a great theatrical drama or otherwise a great soliloquy and, contrasted with either of those, listening to four people in a debate on the same wavelength.

 Most people, except contestants on University Challenge, seem to know something about Haydn. An accomplished composer with a good sense of humour, father of the symphony (although most people are only familiar with some of the London symphonies) who was a bit second fiddle to Mozart and finished up as a forerunner to Beethoven, like a two litre car follows a one litre. This is a fairly standard take which gives no credit to the fact that here was the greatest and most revered composer of his age.

 He was born, the son of a wheelwright, at Rohrau bang in the middle of Austria Hungary and is claimed by both of them. His birthplace was on the Austrian side of the river. His education was Viennese. His working career was in both as the Esterhazy family was Hungarian. So what?   Although he was hardly a wunderkind à la Mozart his talent was recognized and through recommendation he became a boy member of the Cathedral choir at Vienna and top soloist. He was eventually dropped at the age of 14 according to one account for the prank of cutting another choirboy’s pigtail but in reality because his voice was breaking. This career might have continued as there was a proposal afoot to make him a permanent soprano to which his father objected. I dare say that in retrospect Haydn himself also preferred the eventual outcome. Certainly the world was left with a better legacy (as was Haydn) with the output of one of the greatest of composers than in the loss of possibly a great castrato.

 On leaving he lived very rough in Vienna for some twelve years. For those who perceive Haydn as a musical lackey as opposed to the freelancing of Mozart and Beethoven it should be known that Haydn was teaching, playing in street bands and looking for odd commissions. He also took lessons from Nicola Porpora, a crusty old opera composer, to improve on his technical knowledge of playing and composing. His compositions for Furnberg led to a recommendation in which he was appointed kapellmeister to Count Morzin in 1758 and in charge of an orchestra of 12.  

 At this time Haydn married but wives were not allowed and Haydn had to conceal the fact, something that probably was a relief to Haydn even if a bone of contention with Mrs H. There are various references to the marriage being not particularly a happy one, most significantly in the later accounts of Haydn’s two London visits, each of eighteen months in 1791 and 1794 and his lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of his return. Mrs Haydn is said to have been a shrew and a religious bigot. At the same time both of them were said to be carrying on their private affairs and doubtless opportunity presented itself to Haydn in his teaching sessions with young trainee sopranos. Perhaps posterity has been unkind to Mrs Haydn. She probably saw irritating aspects of her husband unperceived by others. Who knows what life is like living with a genial genius!

 In 1761 Morzin had to dismiss his orchestra as his profligacy was fast making him broke. Fortunately Haydn was engaged as a vice Kappelmeister to Gregor Josef Werner by the even richer Prince Paul Esterhazy at twice his previous salary. In fact this involved taking over the whole job except for religious music. Records show that a bit of under the counter money laundering went on to hide the fact that Haydn was paid more than Werner. Haydn was able to augment the orchestra to 18 having probably recruited some of players from the Morzin band. In 1762 Prince Paul Anton died and was succeeded by his brother, Nicholas. His musical requirements were as mammoth as the Esteharzy schlosses which he expanded as well as building the Esterhaza palace including its own opera house in the Hungarian plains. In 1766 Werner died and Haydn stepped into his shoes. He was given a three year contract renewable at will by the prince, an arrangement which continued until the Prince’s death in 1790. After that Haydn was still retained and received a pension for life.

 His years with the Esterhazys were contented and busy. His duties which he took in his stride included all matters musical. He attended on the Prince twice a day to discuss the musical requirements. He was in charge of the purchase of musical instruments, looked after the library, edited the music of others, took the Sunday services at the organ, rehearsed the orchestra, became their virtual shop steward in handling their grievances, took choir practices, gave music lessons, rehearsed operas both those which he wrote and those of others. In the evening there were performances of the music including at one time 150 opera performances a year. And on top of this he composed a bit of music including a weekly baryton trio especially for the Prince to play, about 70 quartets, numerous sonatas, about 90 symphonies, various concertos and masses. He also found time to carry on an affair over 12 years with Luigia Polzelli, a rather untalented Italian opera singer, with a much older asthmatic husband , and who claimed Haydn to be the father of her second son. Little wonder he would return home to the moans of his unmusical and querulous wife and lucky for there to be left out a plate of cold wiener schnitzel.

 Having summed up nearly thirty years in one paragraph it came to an end with the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790 who was succeeded by Prince Anton. He decided to let Haydn go but surprisingly retained him on full salary for life. In turn, this opened the way for Haydn to take up offers previously turned down and, like the Olympics, London, through Johann Peter Salomon, won the bid. 1791 and 1794 were good years for which Haydn produced, inter alia, his twelve London symphonies, his Opus 64 quartets, and was inspired on hearing the choral tradition of Handel to write, on returning to take up residence in Vienna, his two great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. Now that, Lord Coe, is what I call some legacy.

 Prince Anton died in 1794 and was succeeded by Prince Nikolaus II. Haydn remained titular Kapellmeister but the demands upon him were modest, an annual names day mass for Nicholas’s wife, Princess Marie Herminegild. There succeeded until 1802 a series of the most powerful masses that Haydn wrote. These were not just standard ecclesiastical sacred masses (which they were) but more in the nature of choral symphonies. He also returned to freelance composition which included his string quartets, opus 71,through to opus 77. His wife died in 1800 and he became frail giving up composition in 1802. He lived on till 1809 and died much at the same time as Beethoven was writing his Emperor piano concerto and to the background of yet another Napoleonic bombardment of Vienna.

 Matthew will deal with the twists and turns of each of the quartets which he will be illustrating and adding further background to the little I append below.

 There is something wonderfully original and improvisatory in all of Haydn’s music giving each work a unique freshness. One always finds new ideas appearing, strange expressions and never the feeling of “I have heard this before”. His quartets have a classical form but never is there a feeling that each work has been written to fit the same template apart perhaps the minuets when they come from the stable of the hotel owning O’Reilly, as to which Matthew himself will enlighten your curiosity!!

 String Quartet in D, Opus 20 No 4. The opus number 20 might lead you to believe these are early works but Haydn’s numberings are confusing. Only quartets appear to have been accorded opus numbers, presumably by publishers, not by Haydn or his cataloguer Antony van Hoboken . The symphonies were largely written for Esterhazy consumption and only have their numbers referred to and then not always in accurate time order. The Opus 76 quartets were written well after the last of the 104 symphonies and they cannot therefore be 76th in order of output. The opus 20’s are reputed to be the onset of the mature Haydn quartet and were written in 1772, some ten years after the opus 17’s and 12 years after Haydn entered service with Esterhazy.

 Like the majority of Haydn’s quartets, the opus 20’s come as a compilation of 6. None of the individual quartets has a name but the package is called “The Sun”, not to be confused with “the Sunrise” opus 76 No 6. These are not Haydn bursting into sunlight but somewhat darker than hitherto. The only reason for the name is that the front cover of the publication by Ataria of Vienna contained a picture of a sun. This note does not set out a satnav description but of interest is the minuet, called Allegretto a Zingarese. Haydn had a penchant for using gypsy music better known in his gypsy piano trio (no 25).

 It is interesting that the best known works are often those given names like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Haydn’s works contain a number of interesting appellations like “How Do You Do” in his Opus 33’s. I have accorded Op 20 No 4 my own name which I hope will cotton on. I call it “the Bus Conductor” because following the opening of the scherzoid last movement there is a short staccato phrase followed by a curious buzzing like a bus conductor pressing the bell and presumably calling out “Hold very tight please”. Of course Haydn would not have known what a bus conductor was and nor perhaps would some younger members of our audience.

 String Quartet in D, No 5 Op 64 (The Lark). The Op 64’s were written in 1790 at the time of the death of Niklaus and dedicated to Johann Tost. He had been leader of the second violins in the Esterhazy Orchestra. Haydn had written his Op 54’s for him as well and therefore must have had some admiration for his playing. Tost had been previously dismissed but had got his job back. Haydn’s contract made him the exclusive property of Esterhazy and he could not write for others but his works did get out and reached Paris and London. Tost himself appears to have been something of a wide boy who was active in pirating Haydn’s works and selling those of others, Michael Haydn for instance, as those of the more celebrated older brother. Whether Tost was to be the sole recipient or not Haydn was not averse to promising his exclusive products to more than one outlet at a time and he brought three of the Op 64’s to London as well. This one owes its name to the obvious singing violin tune at the beginning, more melodious (but less ornithological) than the ascending lark of Vaughan Williams. The advance on the Op 20’s is remarkable for the variety of ideas these quartets contain. Mendelssohn would surely have heard the last movement which is a forerunner of the fluttery light scherzi for which he became renowned..

 String Quartets Opus 76, No 2 in D minor (Fifths) and No 3 in C (The Emperor)

 This set of six quartets were written nearly ten years on at the time Haydn was established in Vienna and writing “The Creation”. The fifths owes its name to the descending intervals of the opening violin theme. The last movement is full of improvisatory ideas and contains some similar braying to that in Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture

 The Emperor is well known for the use Haydn made of the Emperor’s hymn which he wrote. He uses it in the second movement as a theme and variations although it is probably better described as a Theme with Four Repetitions and Added Figuration. The first movement has particular interest not least for its drone effect.

 Four quartets are not a lot to represent Haydn. So how about us answering the cuts and promote a cycle of all 83 of his quartets!!!

 I would like to end this note with an item of local interest:

 Haydn in Greenwich;

 When Haydn first visited London in 1791 he became interested in anatomy and met John Hunter, the leading surgeon of his day, who lived in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in what is now the Sir John Soane Museum. His wife, Anne Hunter, was a prototype women libber writing poetry. Their friendship flourished and John Hunter offered to remove the polyps in Haydn’s nose although Haydn turned his offer down.

 In 1793 John Hunter had a heart attack and died. He made little provision in his will for Anne as he wanted to give his large collection of specimens to the nation. This left Anne with their two houses in Earls Court and Leicester Square being sold to pay John’s debts and Anne had to find a position as a companion to two ladies living in Maze Hill, Greenwich. Later Parliament ordered the sale of the specimens and Anne’s situation recovered.

 In 1794 Haydn returned for his second visit to London and picked up again on his relationship with Anne which was one of their singing together. Haydn would visit Anne at Maze Hill. He set her poetry to song and these are still played and recorded. They are also said to have had a keen, albeit strange, interest in anatomical parts. In addition to a polyps in his nose Haydn also had a roving eye. We shall never know what went on behind the curtains at Maze Hill but for curious neighbours, both then and now, one can say that plus ça change.