Jasper String Quartet & Caroline Shaw
Franz Joseph Haydn 1732-1809
Franz Joseph Haydn
Franz Joseph Haydn
String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 64, No. 6, Hob.III:64

We owe the ascendancy of the string quartet as the quintessential chamber music genre to Franz Joseph Haydn. His first string quartets, composed when he was in his 20s, were modest five-movement affairs, still called divertimenti, that could also be played as trios. By the time he finished the two quartets Op. 77 in 1799, 40 years and 68 quartets later, he was the most admired musician in Europe and the undisputed master of the genre.

Haydn did not make it a life goal to “invent” the string quartet; rather, it “evolved” under his pen over a period of more than 40 years, fueled by his own enormous creative talent, his penchant for innovation, and encouraged by the acclaim afforded him through the enthusiastic support of his patron Count Nikolaus Esterházy, and later his public. Haydn’s early quartets were still a vehicle for the first violinist to shine, with the other three players serving merely as accompaniment, a feature in keeping with the Baroque trio sonata of soloist plus basso continuo. Beginning with his ground-breaking Op. 20 quartets of 1772 and increasingly thereafter, Haydn began equalizing the roles of the four players. He also gradually transformed the string quartet from a vehicle for home music making to public concert caliber. By the time Haydn had composed the set of six Op. 33 quartets in 1781, Mozart already perceived their importance and dedicated his own first quartets to the master. Beethoven followed suit.

The 25 string quartets Haydn composed during the 1780s were not part of his duties as Kapellmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy; they were self-motivated and designed for the general public. The Prince, recognizing the treasure he had in the composer, gave him a free hand, and by the end of the decade his music was in great demand throughout Europe. While still nominally in the employ of the Esterházy family, Haydn was for all practical purposes a free agent, able to deal with agents and publishers without his patron’s controlling hand.

Haydn composed the six Op. 64 quartets during 1790 – the last two after the death of Prince Nikolaus. The demise of his music-loving patron and the accession to the title by his musically indifferent son fortuitously coincided with the sudden arrival in Vienna of the impresario Johann Peter Salomon. Salomon, who was born in Germany but had settled in London, had made previous attempts to lure Haydn to England. Now Salomon seized the opportunity, offering the composer a generous fee to become the star of his London concert series, an invention for the newly affluent middle class. It took Haydn no time to agree, and by the end of December 1790 he was on his way to London.

The first movement, marked Allegretto, consists of only one theme. Example 1 Instead of a formal second theme, Haydn creates a little ABA exposition, with the middle section a reconsideration of the opening idea. The principal feature of the exposition, however, is the shift from the four-square theme into that expansive transition passage in triplets. Example 2 In order not to be too monotonous, Haydn inserts a new melody into the middle of the development. Example 3 The movement also contains a so-called false recapitulation (“false” because it comes back in the wrong key), one of Haydn’s characteristic little “surprise” contributions to the sonata form tradition.

The second movement is a standard ABA form. There is an operatic quality to this movement, like a da capo aria during which the singer has a sudden tempestuous change of heart – a reconsideration of that calm opening arpeggio. The A section is another simple melody, Example 4 but the mood turns suddenly stormy in the middle section with a passionate solo for the first violin over an accompaniment of rapid repeated sixteenth notes in the other three instruments. Example 5

Like the large majority of Haydn’s minuets, this one is more of a peasant dance than an aristocratic minuet. Example 6 The Trio features a humorous glissando figure in the first violin. Example 7

Like the opening movement, the finale rondo/sonata-form hybrid is essentially monothematic. Example 8 What we can call the “development” is so learnedly contrapuntal that, knowing Haydn’s penchant for humor, it seems almost tongue-in-cheek. Example 9 Haydn interrupts it with grand pauses and restates the theme as a minuet in a “false” change of meter right before the final cadence. Example 10
Johannes Brahms 1833-1897
Johannes Brahms
Johannes Brahms
Quintet in G major for two Violins, two Violas and Cello, Op. 111

Over the last 300 years, many composers have left a paper trail making it possible to trace the evolution of their compositions and style. These trails often include works started and not finished, early versions of works left forgotten in their files or notes on “work in progress.”

Not Johannes Brahms. All he left were finished products – often late revisions of youthful works – and ashes in the fireplace of compositions that had not met his own perfectionist standards. According to his own claim, perhaps a little exaggerated, he made twenty attempts at quartet writing before he was finally satisfied.

In the late 1880s, with his reputation and economic circumstances secure, Brahms repeatedly talked about retiring and giving up composing. When he finished this String Quintet in 1890, he declared it would be his last work; luckily, the urge passed.

Brahms composed the Quintet for his friend, virtuoso violinist Joseph Joachim, to serve as companion to the String Quintet in F, Op. 88. Writing it with performer friends in mind, he meticulously saw to it that all five had an equal share. In the extrovert, assertive first movement, the cello introduces the first theme, Example 1 the violas the second, Example 2 and the second violin the third. Example 3 While usually the first violin tends to dominate an ensemble, here, it serves as an echo. The development concentrates almost exclusively on the initial theme, expanding and sometimes disguising it. But the soaring arpeggio motive frequently lurks in the background.

In contrast, the following Adagio is a melancholic plea introduced by the first viola, whose lower register enhances the mood. Example 4 It’s probably fair to say that the subsequent sighs in the two violins come across as cliché, Example 5 not to mention the dotted rhythm associated with funeral marches since Chopin. Example 6 The climax of the movement ramps up the tragic overtones until eventually subsiding – exhausted – like a long session of weeping.

The plaintive mood does not pick up with the scherzo. Example 7 One of Brahms’ friends commented: “It relieves the strain without displaying – as do so many Allegrettos – more sprightliness than is musically justifiable.” Although the trio begins with more solace in the major mode, it soon turns south. Example 8

The short final movement returns to the ebullient mood of the opening, recalling Brahms’ love of Hungarian music. It is the most harmonically and structurally adventurous of the four movements. The little toggling motive that opens the movement is a unifying force throughout, and note the particular voice leading in the rondo refrain. Example 9 Along the way in the fugato, Brahms indulges in some pretty complex counterpoint, Example 10 and it is also replete with irregular phrasing and elisions. Example 11
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2018