Haydn, String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50/6 "The Frog"

November 14, 2014

Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

String Quartet in D Major, Op. 50, No. 6, "The Frog", c. 1787

Haydn's six string quartets numbered Op. 50 appeared in print in 1787 though it is not entirely certain when he composed them. Mostly likely, they were written between 1784 and 1786 but possibly as late as 1787. In what appears to have been a bit of an afterthought, Haydn dedicated the set to the music-loving, cello-playing King of Prussia, William Frederick II and thus they are known as Haydn's "Prussian" quartets. Written after Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets following Haydn's own epochal Op. 33, the Op. 50 quartets are considered some of Haydn's finest: pure and perfect classical quartets from an inextinguishable font of charm, invention and wit in a new installment of the historical dialectic. Although the traditional set of "famous" or "beloved" quartets of Haydn includes only the final, sixth quartet of Op. 50, the inimitable musicologist and quartet expert Hans Keller includes all six Op. 50 quartets in his book, "The Great Haydn Quartets." Nonetheless, the last quartet, Op. 50, No. 6 in D major is the most well-known of the set bearing its own nickname, "The Frog", bestowed by posterity in reference to a unique sonic device in the finale, of which more in a moment.

The first movement offers two interesting facets of Viennese classicism, monotheism (a sonata with essentially one vs. two themes) and the dominance of the motive, a single short rhythmic cell that saturates the movement and even reappears in the finale, three movements later. The opening motive is a descending figure beginning with a long note, four fast notes and final accented long note. (Curiously, not on the tonic, but harmonically off balance). This motive travels throughout the imitative quartet texture gives rise to transitional figures, forms the second theme (in A major), and generates the bulk of the excitement in the development. It is always astonishing to see what Haydn does with minimal materials, an elaborate crystal growing from a single seed.

The second movement is the slow one, a beguiling, poignant movement in D minor that Hans Keller calls a siciliano for its 6/8 rhythm with dotted accents in a slow tempo. It is a great testament to Haydn's formal freedom and ingenuity that this movement has been variously called a sonata, a ternary (three-part) song form (as in a da capo aria) and a theme and variations. The academic designation is not the point; rather, that Haydn's musical designs can be viewed from multiple angles simultaneously. The tonal plan moves much like a sonata in a minor key (although ending in the parallel major) and it features a two part binary form with a significant "development" in the second part. But, the main theme is so melodious that its deployment for the lyrical slow movement easily makes it a "song". As Haydn rarely repeats himself slavishly, the reappearance of idea is often treated to clever elaboration so as to become a variation of itself, and there you have it: a lyrical sonata with its inherent two and three-part formal ambiguity full of dramatic development and thematic variation. It features some bold harmonic modulations.

The third movement fulfills the classical plan with a minuet and trio, at this point in history well into the genre of the scherzo with its pronounced tendencies for rhythmic surprise and witty delight. The driving rhythm sports a long-short dotted pair typically called a "Scotch Snap" but just as important is Haydn's use of dynamics. Phrases start loudly, leap on accents then end with a quiet whisper like an echo. Even more surprising are the two "grand" pauses in the trio, complete ruptures in the flow that confound with delight.

The quartet's nickname "The Frog" comes from the curious opening figure of the finale: a series of quickly repeated notes played by alternating between two different strings, a technique known as bariolage. While the alternating tones have the same pitch, the contrasting timbre of the two different strings (one open, one stopped) makes for a throbbing sonic effect likened a long time ago to a frog croaking. Now, it is not the sound of a single frog, but a whole slew of frogs in a kind of communal amphibian bariolage that must have given rise to this name. The distinctive effect dominates this sonata finale along with some prominent turn figures, a second theme that harkens back to the first movement's descending motive and a related, wonderfully effective countersubject that joins "the frog" moving chromatically up and down as the frog holds its articulated monotone. For his musical genius, Haydn could work not only with a single theme or one brief motive, but apparently as here, with nothing more than one single note.

© Kai Christiansen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.