Haydn, String Quartet in B-flat, Op. 76, No. 4, "Sunrise"

October 21, 2012

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 76, No. 4, Hob.III:78, "Sunrise", 1797

sunriseHaydn published Op. 76, his last set of six string quartets in 1797 just one year before a young Beethoven would begin his own first foray into the same genre. From approximately 1759 to 1799, Haydn composed 78 string quartets over a period of forty years of which at least 30 are "celebrated" as masterworks of the form. It seems his powers never diminished. Indeed, one feels that he only continued to get better and better placing Op. 76 at the zenith of his achievements. Written in Haydn's "final" phase, the quartets are bold and burnished, composed for public performance at the height of his international fame on the heels of his grand concert trips to London. The six quartets also stand alone in a special historical context coming after Mozart and before Beethoven. So beloved and enduring are these works that three of them have nicknames, bestowed upon them by an adoring public who, at one time, knew each quartet as we might know the stars at night.

The fourth quartet in B-flat is known by the English nickname "Sunrise". The first movement begins with the sustained glow of a single, soft chord over which a solo violin slowly traces the rising sun. Several "introductory" measures fuel this growing dawn until the first full-fledged theme bursts like blinding light, the sun fully emerged. To emphasize this transition, Haydn does it twice in the exposition, the second time letting the sun temporarily set by inverting the theme, the cello playing it upside down, followed by a second theme of ever more dazzling light. A taught and rich development explores the sunrise in a much darker guise in the minor mode before a recapitulation that significantly enhances the opening materials with fresh realizations. This tendency of constant development pervades the quartet from beginning to end.

Haydn's genial brilliance tends to dominate his persona overshadowing the nuanced poignancy and even darkness one finds in his slow movements. The Adagio is a kind of holy hymn, a delicate supplication tinged with a mysterious sorrow. It is not hard to imagine this as a somber sunset, a counterweight to the ebullience of the first movement.

As the Minuet found its way into the standard plan of the classical symphony and quartet, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven expanded its range to become the wild card for a lively triple-meter dance characterized by rhythmic idiosyncrasies, clever writing, surprise, humor and the point of contrast between Scherzo and trio. Here, Haydn transforms the French courtly dance into a robust German waltz with a steady downbeat and strong forward momentum. The trio transports the dance from a beer hall to the countryside as the drone of the French musette completes the transformation from palace to peasantry, a touch of the pastorale.

The finale begins with what sounds like a charming English folk song, crisp and tuneful with a jolly lilt. But like Beethoven, Haydn had an inexhaustible skill for transforming simplicity into elegance through the power of imaginative variation. The tune sets our expectations for a lively rondo featuring little explorations between recurrences of the friendly reminder, but it is the tune itself that takes on the adventure a parade of thematic variations. The marvel of Haydn's ingenuity is only enhanced by a constant sense of accelerating tempo as the last variation scurries beyond our breathless reach into a giddy final cadence. Haydn's inestimable achievement raised music to the highest levels of elegant play and the sheer pleasure of delicious design.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.