JOSEPH HAYDN – Op. 33 – Rebirth of the String Quartet

Austrian composer Joseph Haydn [1732–1809] wrote at least 68 string quartets. Before his first, he wrote several divertimenti, which is an 18th-century musical genre of a light and entertaining nature usually consisting of several movements for strings, winds, or both. This piece was for two violins, viola and cello – a string quartet.

Haydn did not use the title String Quartet until his Opus 33, although all the early quartet ensemble works are now generally referred to as string quartets. Before we get to Op. 33, I would like to discuss No. 1 of Opus 1. Its style is very simple, static and neither rhythmically or harmonically complex. It consists of a solo violin being accompanied by a violin, viola and cello. These three instruments share the same phrasing throughout the piece, only changing harmonically. The instruments are never heard by themselves. The piece is basically a divertimento.

On to Op. 33, written in 1779 and known as The Russian Quartets. I would like to quote from a website –

When he published these quartets, Haydn described them as having been written “in a quite new, special manner,” and the quartets — Haydn’s first in eight years — represent a re-thinking of the form. Gone are all traces of the old divertimento-style quartet, and in its place is an increasingly subtle approach to the possibilities of the form: a new clarity of texture, greater use of all four voices (particularly of the viola and cello), full exploitation of the motivic possibilities within themes, polished contrapuntal writing, and the replacement of the minuet movements with scherzos.

These changes in style were radical and they form the basis of the string quartet repertoire which followed. Although new forms have evolved and new ways of composing have been developed, these concepts are still embedded in modern string quartet composition, over 200 years on.

Haydn named SQ No. 1 of Op. 33 a ‘string quartet’ and it contains many examples of the quoted concepts. It is in four movements.

The opening is a very simple melody. This is in a call and response mode. Some of the accompaniment is in the old divertimento style but there are other passages where the ensemble breaks into individual, overlapping voices. There is a variation on the opening theme before we have an exposition repeat. Various themes are developed within the movement but this is simple, stylised music. A series of flourishes lead us into the conclusion.

The next movement is very short, again it is call and response. It illustrates the creative use of overlapping instruments and counterpoint, to give the movement substance. Nearing the end, the violins converse, with a complex intertwining episode.

The third movement is a simple andante waltz, with a definite motif which runs, slightly modified, virtually through the whole movement. The cello has several solo moments during the opening melody. Then the violin takes over. After a time the cello has a solo passage before the ensemble return. There is a recapitulation of the opening melody. The accompaniment is fairly static, based on the ¾ waltz time. As it develops, the opening violin melody is extensively reharmonised. A change to a minor key brings about some melodic action. Multiple voices abound. The cello comes to the fore once again until the first violin re-emerges to lead the passage to a conclusion.

The final movement is in a frisky mood with the violins fairly racing. After a brief moderate section the virtuoso violins return and then converse. Changing harmonies allow for variation before the beginning reappears. The piece ends on a flourish.

This quartet is so different from Opus 1; it’s like radio compared with black and white TV. Hearing this style led Mozart to compose six quartets dedicated to Haydn and the pupil was able to outshine the master in invoking these new concepts. Beethoven took it a step further and gave us colour TV.

The six quartets that make up Opus 33 are all readily available. The whole set takes up two CDs but many single CDs exist, each containing up to three quartets. There is a version on Naxos by the Kodaly Quartet that contains the reviewed work. If you are going to invest in Haydn, I suggest you start with Opus 33 or higher. Opus Nos. 64 and 76 are especially fine.

Most of Haydn’s quartets are on Spotify and Opus 33 can be found here on YouTube. There are several pages of many Haydn quartets on earsense.

Listenability: He’s not called the ‘father of the string quartet‘ for nothing. Pure Classical quartets.


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