Haydn, String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, Sun, No. 4, Hob.III:34

November 21, 2018

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4 (1772)

Though the Op. 20 set of quartets is essentially Haydn’s fifth such collection, these quartets were especially admired by players and connoisseurs of the day (as well as by Haydn himself) and hailed as a new milestone in the genre. From our modern perspective, centuries hence, we might well consider these the first great string quartet masterworks. Know widely as the “Sun” quartets from an illustration on the cover when published by Hummel, they aptly embody the dawn of a new era. Within this collection one finds an unprecedented variety of form, technique, expression and overall design. The contemporary German art movement known as “Sturm und Drang” imbues the quartets with a special early-Romantic dramatic flair and volatility. With fugues and other polyphonic techniques abounding, the quartets incorporate complex counterpoint to a new degree. As for the string quartet as a medium for intelligent “conversation” and collegial interplay among four enlightened individuals, the Op. 20 quartets offer a new level of independence among parts famously freeing the cello historically for the first time. Truly outstanding and enduring quartets by any measure or standard, these quartets offer a stunning place to inaugurate a showcase.

The fourth string quartet in D major is as unique an individual as any of Op. 20. To balance its novelties with a cohesive orientational device, Haydn unusually based all four movements on the same tonic of D (three movements in D major, one in D minor). The first movement features a classical “sonata form” that is packed dramatic surprises based on dynamics, accents and an extensive range of “development.” Darkly poignant, the second movement comprises a set of variations with a final variation that is so free and rhapsodic that the formal momentum and design in nearly shattered. The minuet and trio is in fact a kind of mockery of the “standard” expectations of this French courtly dance as evidenced by Haydn’s tempo direction: Allegretto alla zingarese. Meaning “in the Gypsy style”, the minuet is full of so many bar-negating syncopations, ties and accents that, despite the conventional meter, the traditional rhythm is humorously (and brilliantly) obliterated, though exactly how or why this is ‘alla zingarese’ is anyone’s guess. The finale is a more recognizably Haydnesque romp but its pauses, restless triplets, deft sneakiness and general wackiness highlight what Haydn labeled scherzando (joking), reinforcing a common critical interpretation that the entire quartet traverses a process of formal disintegration. That such sophistication is already possible based on confounding a well-established set of cultural expectations demonstrates that with Op. 20, Haydn was finally wielding high art with consummate aplomb.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.