Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Haydn's Russian Quartets

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was born in the village of Rohrau in Austria, the son of a wheelwright. He spent some years making a living teaching violin and keyboard, as well as playing as a musician. He came to employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy. He was to remain in the employ of the house of Esterhazy for most of his life.

While being considered by some historians the Father of the Symphony, it is generally accepted that Haydn invented the string quartet, consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello. He established the form of the quartet as having four movements, similar in form to the symphony. It is not known exactly how many quartets Haydn composed, but he himself listed 83.

Haydn completed his Russian Quartets in 1781 as his Opus 33. The quartets take their name from their performance before the Russian Grand Duke Paul, (later Tsar Paul II), and his wife who were visiting Vienna.

I was able to find a Naxos recording of three of the quartets locally. This recording features quartets numbered 1, 2, and 5, performed by the Kodaly Quartet of Hungary.

The first quartet is in the key of B minor. The first movement is a sonata form that shifts to the key of D major. The second movement is marked scherzando and includes a trio in B major, followed by a third andante movement in D major. The finale returns to B minor.

Quartet number 2, which has been given the title "The Joke," is in E flat major. The name comes from the ending of the fourth and final movement, in which there is a change in speed and a coda which plays a joke on the listener. The joke is a series of silences and a whispered ending, which fools the listener.

Quartet number 5 is in the key of G major, and has been given the title "How Do You Do?" This is due to sound of the initial figure of the first movement, which suggests the question.

All in all, the quartets provide wonderful listening. Like most of Haydn's compositions, they employ the Classical style which inspired many of the composers that followed. This is light and easy listening, but with enough content to please those who look for structure in classical music works.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a friend of Haydn's, and it is said that the former was inspired to write quartets after seeing the score of the latter's Opus 33. Mozart wrote six quartets that he then dedicated to Haydn. I will take up these quartets in a later entry.

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