on period instruments

The Golden Age of String Quartets – Liner Notes

The last two decades of the eighteenth century witnessed an extraordinary historical shift in Europe. Out of social, political, and cultural upheavals, the modern world was born. “The Enlightenment,” a philosophical movement challenging the established dogmas of Church and State, gained a critical mass of acceptance. The scientific world view, and the principle of universal human rights, inspired new visions of human potential. The aristocracy lost most of its legitimacy, and an ascendant middle class instigated radical change in the way culture would be supported and appreciated.

In this heady time, three brilliant composers, working in and around Vienna, accomplished as thorough a transformation of musical style as Descartes, Rousseau and Jefferson achieved philosophically, socially and politically. Each composer, welding a deep understanding of his predecessors with a strong drive to innovate and synthesize, had a profound influence on his contemporaries and on the generations to follow. Taken together, their work came to be known as the Classical Style.

The Golden Age of String Quartets explores and celebrates three pivotal sets of six quartets: Haydn’s Op. 33, published in 1781; Mozart’s quartets dedicated to Haydn, published in 1785; and Beethoven’s Op. 18, published in 1801. Beginning in March, 2009, the Windermere String Quartet has devoted one program each season to this ongoing project, performing one work from each set.

Joseph Haydn spent most of his career in service to aristocracy: as Kapellmeister (musical director) to the Princes of Esterhazy from 1766 until 1790, he had specific duties and obligations that shaped and sometimes constricted his creative work. In his original contract the rights to his compositions were reserved to his master, and he was not allowed to see his works published or performed outside the court. However, this did not prevent Esterhazy musicians from carrying manuscript copies with them all over Europe. By the time his contract was redrawn in 1779, allowing him to publish his works and to travel and perform abroad, his fame had already spread.

Op. 33 was one of Haydn’s first publications to capitalize on his new freedom. In one of several letters to potential subscribers, he wrote:

Since I know that there are in Zürich and Winterthur many gentlemen amateurs and great connoisseurs and patrons of music, I shall not conceal from you the fact that I am issuing, by subscription, for the price of 6 ducats, a work, consisting of 6 Quartets for 2 violins, viola and violoncello concertante, correctly copied, and written in a new and special way (for I haven’t composed any for 10 years).

No longer writing just for a captive audience of connoisseurs, Haydn set out to engage players and listeners of varying levels of sophistication. Compared to his previous set, the magnificent Op. 20, written a decade earlier, the quartets of Op. 33 are generally simpler in texture, with less contrapuntal complexity. On the other hand, working with concise melodic and rhythmic materials, Haydn develops a rich web of motivic relationships. Common gestures unite melodies with their accompaniments, while contrasting sections share material, achieving a satisfying multi-level structural unity. These subtle relationships underlie the conversational quality which accounts as much as anything for the ascendancy of the string quartet as the most enduring form of chamber music. Each instrument, whether in a melodic or accompanying role, is always contributing to the flow of feeling and ideas.

As Haydn’s new relationship to his employer allowed him to spend more time in Vienna, he found a close friend in a younger colleague, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. By the time they met in 1784, Mozart had already begun to compose a new set of quartets of his own, which he would dedicate to Haydn. As with Haydn, a nearly ten-year gap separated the new set from his previous works in the genre, the “Viennese” quartets of 1773. These new quartets are the only major works Mozart is known to have composed without a specific commission or promise of publication. They are also the only works for which sketches survive, perhaps indicating the special care he took over their composition. The dedication to Haydn in the published parts reads,

Here they are then, O great man and dearest friend, these six children of mine. They are, it is true, the fruit of a long and laborious endeavour, yet the hope inspired in me by several friends that it may be at least partly compensated encourages me, and I flatter myself that this offspring will serve to afford me solace one day. You, yourself, dearest friend, told me of your satisfaction with them during your last visit to this capital. May it therefore please you to receive them kindly and to be their father, guide and friend!

Haydn fully reciprocated Mozart’s admiration, and took the opportunity of Mozart’s father’s presence at a reading of three of the “Haydn” quartets to declare,

I tell you, calling God to witness and speaking as a man of honour, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by repute!

By the time Ludwig van Beethoven arrived in Vienna in 1792, the business of music was changing; while the patronage of the aristocracy was still of vital importance, public performance and publication had become viable sources of income. Beethoven had success from the start as a pianist; and his early publications also did well. When it came to string quartets, however, he seems to have hesitated. As a sort of quartet-writing workshop, he copied out Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets by hand. He worked painstakingly for two years to produce his first quartets, Op. 18, filling hundreds of pages with sketches. With their publication, he embarked on a compositional journey that would ultimately develop the quartet genre beyond all classical conceptions.

W. A. Mozart: Quartet in C K465 “Dissonance”

The first movement of K465 opens in an almost unprecedented manner, with an Adagio introduction (only one other Mozart quartet, and no Haydn quartets, do so). Over a repeated eighth-note ostinato in the cello, the upper voices enter with an extraordinary series of suspensions (the source of the quartet’s nickname) like nothing else in the contemporary repertoire. However, at the time he was composing the “Haydn” Quartets, Mozart was spending his Sunday afternoons at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a Viennese nobleman and patron of the arts, where, according to Mozart’s letters, “nothing is played but Handel and Bach.” The quartet’s opening is not so strange, if we think of it in the context of the opening choruses of either of Bach’s great Passions, or perhaps the Crucifixus from the Mass in B minor. Since the music of Bach was no longer fashionable, it’s perhaps not surprising that, to contemporary ears, this quartet was “much too strongly seasoned.” After the dark chromaticism of the opening, the sun comes out in an Allegro of astonishing good humour and beauty. Its development revisits some of the harmonic complexity of the introduction, and Mozart exhibits his consummate contrapuntal skill in the re-orchestration of the opening Allegro material.

The Andante cantabile opens with music of sublime beauty, anticipating the Contessa in The Marriage of Figaro. Soon after, the first violin and cello initiate a tender dialogue, which builds into a cadenza-like moment, then concludes in a hushed expectancy. Then, as in the beginning of the first movement, the cello initiates an ostinato over which a new series of suspensions builds. Mozart returns to this material twice more in the course of the movement, the last time building to a climax of falling chromatic lines in the first violin against a more complex version of the cello ostinato, after which the movement sinks into quiet repose.

We find more chromaticism in the Minuet, as well as humour: Mozart appears to be playing “keep-away” with the home key, waiting until the final cadence of the Minuet to reassure us that we’re really in C major. The Trio, in C minor, anticipates the mood and energy of the Great G minor symphony, which was to be composed three years later. The prevailing joyful mood of the quartet, however, is reasserted in the finale, an Allegro molto of irresistible jollity, a romp for all concerned.

Joseph Haydn: Quartet in E-flat Op. 33 No. 2 “The Joke”

It should come as no surprise that Haydn, the inventor of the string quartet, would take the opportunity, with his first publicly available works in the genre, to lay innovation on with a generous hand. With Op. 33, Haydn gives us Scherzos to replace the traditional Minuet movement, and Rondos in place of Op. 20’s dense and complex fugal finales. Each movement of Op. 33 No. 2 provides a tangible example of the “new and special way” Haydn boasts of in his advertising.

The first movement’s opening theme is a marvel of motivic richness, masquerading as a jovial yet uncomplicated first violin tune. In the space of two measures, Haydn gives himself no less than four motives, from which he’ll build a development of wit and charm. The Scherzo follows: the joke here is the contrast between the uprightly robust character of the Scherzo proper and the somewhat tipsy, late-night style of the Trio – an amusing juxtaposition of the high- and lowbrow. The viola solo that opens the pastoral slow movement is another first: never before had Haydn featured the viola. Here he uses it as an opportunity to experiment with quartet texture, recasting the melody each time it reappears with a different, more complex instrumentation.

The finale of this quartet, from which it derives its nickname, The Joke, is a marvelous example of a hallmark of Haydn’s style, the setting up and then thwarting of expectation. From the outset it proceeds exactly as you think a Rondo would, until the last return of the opening material, at which point Haydn begins deconstructing his phrases in a way that must have sparked the imagination of many later composers (not least, Beethoven!) The quizzical nature of the last few measures never fails to raise an eyebrow, or a smile.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Quartet in C minor Op. 18 No. 4

Beethoven reserved C minor for his most dramatic music, his works of unusual intensity, such as his Pathetique piano sonata, the funeral march from the Eroica Symphony, the Symphony No. 5, and the String Trio Op. 9 No. 3, which anticipates some of the material of the C minor Quartet.

In Op. 18 No. 4, the only minor-key quartet in the set, at first glance we are presented with a fairly standard four-movement cycle: an Allegro, showcasing the first violin, an Andante, the traditional Minuet, and an energetic Finale. Beethoven, though, puts his own spin on each movement.

In the Allegro ma non tanto, while the first violin does most of the leading, it spends the better part of the development in dialogue with the cello, who has taken over the melodic thematic material. On several occasions, Beethoven seems even to poke fun at the tradition of the first violin leading, by pitting all three of the other players against the first violinist in a “battle” of chords, as though the inner voices and bass are ready to stage a mutiny.

In the second movement, Beethoven’s play continues, as he abandons the traditional slow movement. Instead, he sneaks in a Scherzo (Andante scherzoso quasi allegretto), a playful major-key movement which is built on little canons passing through the voices. The second violin begins the movement, followed five bars later by the viola. Four bars later the first violin enters, joined by the cello three bars afterward! This is not exactly a regular canon!

Beethoven seems to begin the Menuetto (Allegretto), with a more deliberate nod to tradition. He returns to his dark C minor for the Minuet, and presents a lovely A-flat major Trio; however, just when you might expect a moment of normalcy he eliminates the second repeat from the Trio, and has very specific instructions to return to the Minuet ... but faster. Perhaps he is simply anxious to get on to the Finale.

For the final Allegro, a delightful movement in the gypsy-Hungarian tradition, Beethoven adopts Haydn’s Rondo form, infusing it with his own particular brand of boisterous jocularity. Tender interludes are ultimately no match for the energetic main material, which marks its final return with a headlong Prestissimo rush to the finish.

©Windermere String Quartet 2012. All rights reserved.