Haydn’s late quartets
By the time he came to write the String Quartets published as Opus 76 and Opus 77, Haydn was undoubtedly the most famous living composer in the whole of Europe. He had recently returned from the highly successful second visit to England, for which he had com¬posed his last six symphonies, culminating in the brilliant and festive Drum Roll Symphony (No. 103) and London Symphony (No, 104). This is public music, full of high spirits, ex¬pansive gestures and orchestral surprises. Haydn knew how to please his audience. And in 1796, following his return to Vienna, he began work on his largest and most famous choral work, the oratorio, “The Creation”. In the succeeding years, till 1802, he was to write a series of other large scale religious choral works, including several masses. The oratorios and masses were also public works, employing large forces for dramatic effect, but warm and full of apparently spontaneous religious feeling. Yet at the same time he composed these 8 quartets, in terms of technical mastery and sheer musical invention the equal of the symphonies and choral works, but in their mood and emotional impact far removed, by turns introspective and detached, or full of passionate intensity.
Once again, as in the early 1770s when he appears to have been going through some kind of spiritual crisis, Haydn returned to the String Quartet as a means to accomplish a two¬fold aim: firstly to innovate musically in a genre free from public performance requirements or religious convention; secondly to express personal emotions or philosophy in a musical form that is intimate yet capable of great subtlety and complexity of meaning. The result is a series of quartets of astonishing structural, melodic, rhythmic and harmonic variety, in¬habiting a shifting emotional world, where tension underlies surface brilliance and calm gives way to unease.
The six quartets of Opus 76 differ widely in character. The opening movement of No, 2 is tense and dramatic, while that of No. 4 begins with the soaring long-breathed melody that has earned It the nickname of “The Sunrise”. The minuets too have moved a long way from the stately court dance of the mid-eighteenth century. The so-called “Witches Minuet” of No. 2 is a strident canon, that of No. 6 is a fast one-in-a-bar movement anticipating the scherzos of Beethoven, while at the heart of No. 5 is a contrasting trio section which, far from being the customary relaxed variant of the surrounding minuet, flings itself into frenetic action and is gone. The finales are full of the energy and grace we associate with Haydn, but with far less conscious humour and more detachment than In earlier quartets,
But it is in the slow movements that Haydn is most innovative and most unsettling. In No. 1 the cello and the first violin embark on a series of brusque dialogues. No. 4 is a subdued meditation based on the hushed opening chords. The slow movements of No. 5 and No. 6 are much looser in structure, the cello and viola setting off on solitary episodes of melodic and harmonic uncertainty. But there the similarity ends, for while No. 5 is enigmatic and predominantly dark in tone, the overlapping textures of its sister are full of light-filled intensity.