Haydn, String Quartet in d, Op. 76, No. 2, "Fifths"

November 23, 2008

Franz Josef Haydn, 1732-1809

String Quartet in d minor, Op. 76, No. 2, "Fifths", 1796-1797

Joseph HaydnHaydn's entire quartet legacy comprises a rough total of sixty-eight quartets written over the span of nearly fifty years and includes at least twenty-five unequivocal masterpieces. The quartets 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. 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.

Within the world of Haydn's quartets, those in a minor key are few and far between averaging approximately one in six, generally, one per set. Haydn uses them sparingly since, by definition, they tend to be dark, by turns melancholy, tragic or severe. The String Quartet in d minor, Op. 76 No. 2 is stellar example: with three of its four movements in a minor key, it casts a spell of intense gravity, perhaps one of the single best antidotes to the stereotypical image of the genial, "papa" Haydn. Like many Haydn quartets that have become as familiar as good friends over the centuries, it has a nickname, "Fifths", a reference to the cardinal musical feature of the first movement.

The opening Allegro is based on a singular four-note motif constructed from two pairs of descending fifths, a fundamental motif familiar to most through the likes of doorbells and clock towers. Just like Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (or his first string quartet written within a year or two this one), Haydn's entire movement is saturated with the motif of which one brave scholar counted over 100 occurrences. It serves as the first theme, a counterpoint to the second theme, begins the development in a vividly obvious inversion and, naturally, forms an obsessive baseline in a little fugue. The curious thing about the motif is that its simple succession of perfect fifths is entirely independent of harmony; it implies none yet works without modification in a variety of harmonic contexts. This enables Haydn to craft a sonata articulated by contrasts between light and dark while maintaining the omnipresent theme. Its primal nature expressed in a short cell grows through repetition into a driving force of dark determinism suggesting and possibly even inspiring Beethoven's analogous fateful symphony.

The Andante brings immediate relief through several means: a switch to the major mode, a lightening of tempo as well as texture and a deliciously gallant theme treated to rich variation. Relaxed and gentle, it is a little marvel of formal craftsmanship, burnished with Haydn's playful sense of musical wit. Though marked by a ticking regularity like a musical clock, the movement's form is appropriately relaxed and spontaneous, one of the numerous elusive hybrids for which Haydn was famous. It suggests a simple ternary form, a sonata (with development) and a theme and variations all intertwined within a charmingly natural musical logic that needs no classification to be effective. Gracious and bright, it is, however, an eye within a larger storm.

Famous for its opening fifths, this quartet is nearly as famous for its scherzo. The third movement Menuetto even has its own nickname: the "Witches' Canon." Haydn indulges in a bit of learned craft by writing a strict canon between the upper and lower halves of the quartet, each pair playing in perfect, unrelenting unison with a certain bare austerity thematically akin to the fifths. With the restoration of the minor key and the mysteriously endless, trance-inducing quality of the canon, one can easily understand the association with witchcraft. A trio brings the necessary contrast but not without some feints, a bit more rustic humor, the curious reappearance of the ticking clock. All these intriguing proceedings occur rather miraculously within a "proper" sectional dance movement of the most classical sort.

The finale is a barnstormer: swift, urgent and brilliantly nervous in a mode of expression that is iconic of the grand Classical style perfected by Haydn and Mozart. The first violin enjoys a virtuosic prominence that is nearly concertante and its spicy flourishes remind us that Haydn was nearly as Hungarian as he was Austrian. Despite its driving vivace tension, the music travels through passages that are exuberant, even exalted. And despite its rare obsession with music in a minor key, the quartet concludes with a gracious turn to the major, a glorious and good natured reassurance that all has been but a well-staged courtier's masque, a brilliant spectacle intended to entice, but not to offend or overly rile.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.