Haydn, String Quartet in D Major, Op. 76, No. 5, "Largo"

September 19, 2018

Charles Burney “ . . . they are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects, and seem the production, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well already, but of one of highly-cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before.”

Charles Burney in a letter to Haydn regarding Op. 76

Haydn's string quartet legacy comprises 68 works written over the span of nearly fifty years and includes at least twenty-five unequivocal masterpieces. They were generally published in groups of six (or three) of which there are several landmark sets, each with its own personality, ingenuity and style. Each set tends to reflect a particular phase of Haydn's ever-creative quartet thinking and, rather miraculously, forms a complete universe in itself, so rich and varied are the musical treasures within. If one were forced to pick the so-called "desert island" opus, the likely candidate might be Op. 76, the last complete set of quartets Haydn wrote between 1796 and 1797 when he was 65 years old. They were published in 1800, the very year a young Beethoven finished his own first set. At the time, Haydn was essentially retired from service to the Esterhazy family, "world" famous after his two fabulously successful tours to England, materially well-off and still in full command of his art. The quartets of Op. 76 were composed for high caliber ensemble in public performance before a sizeable, rapt audience. These were big extroverted works of great virtuosity commissioned by a nobleman connoisseur for a handsome sum. They represent an unequivocal and dazzling peak in Haydn's career as well as a touchstone for all future quartet composers.

The fifth quartet in D Major begins with a surprise: rather than a dramatic introduction or a terse theme pregnant with a motive ripe for development, Haydn begins with moderately-paced lyrical “song” in a text-book two-part form initially sounding more like a slow movement placed first. Extremely unusual for Haydn’s string quartets, this one begins not with a “sonata-allegro” first movement but what turns out to be a loose and fanciful theme and variations. The little song becomes the vehicle for some of the finest quartet writing to date with elegant polyphony, classical panache and a kind of accelerating energy finishing in a scintillating froth like champagne, an exemplar of the high Viennese style.

Dedicated to that patron that commissioned Op. 76, Hungarian nobleman Count Joseph Georg von Erdődy, the quartets are sometimes known as Haydn’s “Erdődy” quartets and most of the individual quartets themselves have nicknames (e.g. “Fifths”, “Sunrise”, “Emperor”). This quartet is associated with the nickname “Largo” after the particularly affective slow movement. Placed second following the well-established standard essentially after Haydn’s own examples, it amply lives up to the tempo and character directions in its title “Largo. Cantabile e mesto.” What might initially seem like a contradiction, “singing and melancholy” is perfectly and poignantly reflected in music that sings heartfelt and hymn-like in a major key but then darkens into a minor key by turns of phrase in a musical chiaroscuro. “Simple” yet profound, it is surely one of Haydn’s greatest creations and it follows that the quartet’s nickname would highlight this movement.

A short third-movement minuet and trio follows. The minuet marked as allegro with the qualifier “not too much” seems consistent with the first two movements in sustaining a kind of elegant gentility, perhaps yet another meaning to the nickname “Largo”, but as the slow movement darkens from cantabile to mesto, so the minuet gives way to a slightly sinister trio featuring a rumbling wave in the cello and a surprisingly complex texture made from a diversity of independent figurations. The “da capo” return dispels the shadows again. Any sense of moderation, “Largo”, or genteel restraint is immediately obliterated by the hightailed hijinks of the finale, a relatively brief but action packed romp that is a unique and freewheeling design somewhere between a condensed sonata and a rondo. A crisp two-chord cadential flourish repeatedly seems to shout “charge” as the violin and cello take off in a dashing call and response racing up and down scales, around cadences and leaping with surprising modulations in a breathless chase that even mimics hunting horns. As he proved over and over again, Haydn knew how to write an ending.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.