Joseph Haydn, String Quartet Op. 74, No. 3, "The Rider"

November 10, 2019

Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809

String Quartet in g minor, Op. 74, No. 3, "The Rider", 1793

In 1790, Haydn essentially retired with a pension from his decades-long service as Kapellmeister to the Hungarian Esterházy family. He soon made arrangements with the impresario Johann Peter Salomon to travel to London where he was fêted as the greatest living European composer. At the height of his powers, Haydn witnessed his symphonies and string quartets performed before a huge public audience in a large theatrical setting, a far cry from the exclusive Esterházy salon. Inspired by this new kind of grandeur, Haydn prolifically composed a fresh series of symphonies and chamber music realizing the glorious apex of his career in what can be called the “London Years.”

A new approach is particularly evident in the string quartets he penned back in Vienna in preparation for a second trip to London. Composed around the time Haydn turned 60, the six string quartets published in two separate sets as Op. 71 and Op. 74 scintillate with a bold exuberance featuring curtain-raising introductions, virtuosic part writing and more adventurous harmonic changes. Though intended for his next London showcase, Haydn eventually dedicated the set to Count Franz d’Apponyi, a member of another Hungarian noble family, and so they are sometimes called the “Apponyi” quartets. Undoubtedly, the most famous quartet of the bunch is known by a nickname bestowed by posterity, “The Rider”, or, in a more descriptive translation from the German “Reiterquarett”, “The Horseman.” The name refers to the galloping theme in the thrilling finale made all the more gripping as it launches in the quartet’s dark ruling key of G minor.

The quartet comprises the four-movement design made traditional by Haydn himself. The two outer movements are cast in what is commonly known as “sonata form.” While this term may cause some to blanche with a fear of unknowing, the concept is relatively simple. The essence of the design involves three parts. The first part presents the main musical themes. The second part makes a dramatic play on these themes music like a “jam session” full of references, digressions and entertaining surprises. The final part returns to the ordered restatement of the themes elaborated and transformed for a more powerful sense of resolution. In order to give the music a meaningful, memorable shape, as well as stock it with contrast for the ensuing, dramatic play, the first part itself has multiple constituents, each with a distinctive identity based on a theme, rhythm or harmony. Because it is written in a minor key, Haydn’s “Rider” offers an especially vivid opportunity to experience the form, twice. In both outer movements, the first theme is in a minor key and the second is in a major key. This dynamic tension runs throughout riveting our attention as we wonder how this contest will resolve.

The first movement starts with a bold introduction and a silence. A call to attention, it also contains a syncopated “stutter” that will recur throughout the movement in many guises. The shape of the main material moves from a dark to light, suspense to relief, tentative motion to a lilting waltz. The finale exploits a similar overall design but, without any introduction and at a faster pace, it launches into a dark, dramatic gallop. Haydn sweetens the harmonies as a more lyrical theme gradually emerges dispelling the tension with ever-growing light. The fast perpetual motion maintains a seamless groove as the Horseman gallops from anxiety to triumph.

Between these sonata-form bookends, Haydn offers one of his most luminous and touching slow movements followed by a minuet. Like the sonata-form movements that flank them, the inner movements are also three-part forms. The slow movement features a four-part hymn-like songfulness that waxes radiant with a careful tempo, brilliant harmonies and rich embellishments the second time around. The minuet contrasts the song with a spirited dance and its inner trio. In both movements, Haydn does the opposite of his outer sonata movements: rather than moving from minor to major, the music moves from major to minor and back again. Rather than dispelling the initial darkness, the middle movements temporarily intersperse it like a cloud on an otherwise sunny day.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.