Joseph Haydn didn't have to write string quartets. His duties as Kapellmeister to the princely Eszterhazy family kept him extremely busy. Twice-weekly concerts required a steady stream of symphonies from his pen. Rehearsing his musicians, managing the purchase, maintenance, and repair of the orchestra's instruments, supervising a small army of music copyists, and smoothing over quarrels between players or disputes with the managers of the royal household was more than enough to fill his days.
And to top it off, his prince, Nikolaus the Magnificent, had a fondness for playing a peculiar musical instrument known as the baryton, a kind of viola d'amore that featured bowed strings with pluckable resonating strings underneath. In order to fulfill the princely demand for baryton music, in the decade from the mid-1760s to the mid-1770s Haydn composed over 120 trios for baryton, viola, and cello, not to mention numerous other works featuring baryton.
Yet Haydn still took the time to write string quartets, even though, in the course of over forty years with the Eszterhazys, he never once received a royal directive to do so.
The reason for this can perhaps be found in the extraordinary dedication with which he pursued his compositional duties. Haydn sought to improve his art by the thorough exploration of musical forms and textures, and by bold experimentation. And what he came to discover was that the string quartet provided the most concentrated forum in which to do this.
Another factor may have been the relative isolation of the Eszterhazy court, both at the summer palace in western Hungary and at the family seat at Eisenstadt. As Haydn later recalled, "I could, as head of an orchestra, make experiments, observe what created an impression and what weakened it, thus improving, adding to, cutting away, and running risks. I was cut off from the world. There was no one in my vicinity to make me unsure of myself or to persecute me, and so I had to become original."
The first truly spectacular blossoming of this originality occurred in the symphonies of the late 1760s, many of them darkly passionate works in minor keys. As he continued his symphonic explorations, Haydn turned once again, after a break of nearly a decade, to the string quartet, where he could pursue further experiments in a leaner, more intimate and simultaneously starker medium.
Over the course of three years, beginning late in 1769, Haydn wrote no fewer than eighteen string quartets. The seriousness with which he pursued this new medium is signed in part by the cyclic nature of the works, for Haydn conceived and executed his quartets in groups of six (with no two works in the same key) – something he had done with no other type of musical composition. Though it was common for publishers to print works in sets of three or six, it was rare for those works to be both widely varied in character and unified by their complementarity.
Though the first twelve quartets (published in two sets of six as Opus 9 and Opus 17) from this series were major advances over Haydn's earlier quartet-divertimentos, they were nevertheless uneven in quality, at times tortuous in their invention, the works of a brilliant man struggling for mastery and failing spectacularly. Which only makes the third set of quartets all the more astounding. For with Opus 20, written in 1772, Haydn, and indeed the Classical Style itself, reaches full maturity.
This cannot be overstated: the six string quartets of Opus 20 are as important in the history of music, and had as radically a transforming effect on the very field of musical possibility itself, as Beethoven's Third Symphony would 33 years later.
The String Quartet in F Minor, though by tradition placed fifth in the set, was actually the first to be written. F minor was Haydn's most personal key, as G minor was Mozart's. The exuberant, all-embracing Haydn of the London Symphonies is not to be found here. The F minor quartet reveals Haydn at his most inward, searching, even tragic.
Most of the quartets of Opera 9 and 17 are top-heavy, with the weight of the works leaning towards the opening movements, which are large in scale. In the first quartet of Opus 20, Haydn begins redressing the balance. Though the opening movement is of similarly large dimensions, Haydn's use of a double fugue for the finale provides a counterweight. By introducing the most refined practices of Baroque counterpoint into this and two other quartets in the set, Haydn infused the best of the old into the new.
The opening Allegro moderato is darkly questioning, insistent as to the necessity of finding answers, unsure they will ever be forthcoming. The Menuetto at first deepens this desolation, only to brighten with the Trio's F major light, though the minor mode soon returns. The F Major Adagio is like a coming to one's senses, a wistful pastoral appreciation of life in the moment – but a mortal certainty intrudes. In this context, the Finale comes like the long-awaited answer. Haydn borrowed a well-known subject for his fugue, a melody found in Bach and Handel both: in the A minor fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, and in "And with His stripes" from The Messiah. Yet there's an almost cold serenity to Haydn's treatment – he may have found his answer, but the listener may still be left with questions.
We cannot know what might have been happening in Haydn's life to elicit such dark reflections, but we can hear it. Whatever it was, it was singular, for in this quartet Haydn cleaves to the home key and its relative major to an extraordinary degree. Only in the middle of the F minor fugue does he venture into a truly bold modulatory pattern (circle of fifths), journeying as far afield as A flat minor (a move worthy of Beethoven) before returning home again.
Copyright © Ron Drummond, 1999.