String Quartet in D major Op.20/4

Composer: Joseph Haydn (b. 1732 - d. 1809)
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Composer: Joseph Haydn (b. 1732 - d. 1809)

Performance date: 08/07/2018

Venue: St. Brendan’s Church

Composition Year: 1772

Duration: 00:24:36

Recording Engineer: Ciaran Cullen, RTÉ

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Halcyon Quartet (Claudia Fuller, Leidy Sinclair [violins], Nathalie Green-Buckley [viola], Hee Yeon Cho [cello]) - [quartet]

Halcyon Quartet

Claudia Fuller, Leidy Sinclair [violins]

Nathalie Green-Buckley [viola]

Hee Yeon Cho [cello]

Joseph Haydn [1732-1809]

String Quartet in D major Op.20/4 [1772]

Allegro di molto

Un poco adagio, affetuoso

Menuetto, Allegretto alla zingarese

Presto e scherzando

The observant concert-goer will notice that concert programmes do not give a number to Haydn’s quartets. The great critic, Hans Keller, reckoned Haydn wrote 45 profound and profoundly different, absolutely flawless, consistently original master quartets, each a violent, multi-dimensional contrast to any of the others. However, Keller excluded all of the 18 early divertimento-style quartets from his count, some of which may be spurious. There are around 70 quartets by Haydn, but it is a brave writer who gives them numbers.

Keller had controversial views; he considered Haydn to be not only the first but also the last quartet composer! His argument was that once quartets were transplanted to the concert hall and addressed to an audience they lost their expressive range and finesse. He felt that the ideal acoustic conditions for a quartet are those of the chamber where projection of tone is not necessary. However he relegates most of us to the realm of also-rans when he claims that only string players who have played in a quartet are capable of understanding the secret science of quartets. I suppose you could say that in a world where accessibility is the watchword, Keller’s unrepentant elitism is almost refreshing.

However, it is generally agreed that the string quartet came of age with Haydn’s set of six Opus 20 quartets, written in 1772 when he was already in his fortieth year. His earlier quartets had been divertimenti with five movements and characterised by simple harmonies, homophonic textures and doubling of tune and bass. He also wrote baroque works with elaborate counterpoint, often cast in the form of prelude and fugue. In the late 1760s he wrote three operas, and the standard types of rage and despair arias could have given him fruitful models for his so-called Sturm und Drang style. Comic opera also generated a witty dialogue type of music based on question and answer, which could have led to the conversational type of quartet writing that Haydn created. This mixture of serious and comic was to become the hallmark of the classical style of quartets.

The D major quartet is a substantial work of over thirty minutes with a massive first movement, which is an early example of Haydn’s uncanny ability to build enormous and complex structures from the simplest material. In this case the basic motif in octave unison in the first bar is the foundation of what follows. The intimate and private nature of this work is borne out by three of the four movements ending pianissimo. The second movement is ostensibly a set of variations, though the fourth and longest one turns itself into a developmental variation by introducing both tonal instability and harmonic uncertainty. The cellist is given an unusual solo spot in the second variation, while the third variation is given to the leader. The miniature Minuet is set to a gypsy tune, while the witty little Trio is in delightful contrast. The presto finale begins with a highly original crystal clear rhythmic characterisation, which leads to all sorts of surprises jumping out of the headlong tempo, though the ending, in keeping with the rest of the work, is downbeat and sotto voce.

Francis Humphrys