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The string quartet according to Haydn was a place for experimentation, discovery, and ultimately, artistic splendor. Like the piano sonata in Beethoven's career, the quartet for Haydn became a laboratory where new ideas and methods could be tested and the glorious tools of his trade be honed. Again like Beethoven's sonatas, Haydn's quartets became the proving ground for his symphonies and the other large forms which were to receive the benefits of his ever-growing mastery.
Haydn began writing string quartets as early as the 1750s, when he was in his twenties. Not surprisingly, inasmuch as the stylistic compass available at the time was an unreliable instrument that sent composers off in different directions, these works demonstrate that the young composer was caught with one ear galvanized by grandiose Baroque swirls, the other enticed by the deliberate plainness and the passionate stirrings of the music of C.P.E. Bach. Was Haydn confused by the apparent conflict? Yes, somewhat. But, like the talented, young Austrian musician that he was, he experimented with what he had, and since what he had was both the old and the emerging new, his early compositions in all forms can be seen to combine, at times hesitantly, features of both.
He proceeded with due care, and by the late 1760s his string quartets reflected a decisive definition as to form, expressive content, and compositional dexterity. Through the some 30 years that he was Kapellmeister to the titled Esterházys, he composed voluminously in all forms and was referred to as "our national favorite" by his countrymen. When in 1790 Prince Anton dismissed most of his court musicians, he retained Haydn on the payroll but gave him freedom to move about as he pleased. Haydn was more than ready to accept offers in London and to effectively conquer that bustling musical city which had for so long been dominated by, and still worshipped at the shrine of, the German-turned-Britisher, Handel.
Large fame, the adulation of a large public, an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, and the experience of the rich musical scene in London invigorated the 60-year-old Haydn and stimulated his creative juices. Among the works he produced upon returning to Vienna were the six hugely successful quartets, Opp. 71 and 74. These might have been the culmination of his quartet writing, but Haydn was not yet written out: In 1797, at the age of 65, he composed the six superb quartets, Op. 76; two years later he added what were to be the two final works to his quartet catalog, Op. 77. At his death in 1809, he left an unfinished quartet, which is listed as Op. 103.
The present Quartet, with its kind-of-silly nickname, "Rider," christened (not by Haydn) because of the final movement's somewhat galloping licks, must be considered one of the composer's crowning achievements. (Remember, Haydn's crown is filled with countless gems.) Whereas in his first quartets, Haydn was loath to give much, if any, important material to any but the first violin, he later wrote fully for four instruments. As a prime example, the present G-minor Quartet is an equal opportunity employer. In fact, all the players are pressed into quite demanding, heavy-duty activity, right from the striking, attention-getting opening. Most of the movement, except for the waltzy second theme, is designed in large strokes with dynamic rhythmic energy pressing ever forward.
Haydn loosens the pressure completely for a slow movement that has the deepest kind of sensibility. The music revolves around an awed, hymn-like theme that is both grand and solemn, its lofty expressiveness traced at an extremely slow tempo. The essential seriousness of the movement, however, does not restrain Haydn from some dramatic outbursts, but these are very much in character and help to define the grandeur of the whole musical statement.
The Minuet is not exactly grand, but it's not trivial, either, which is one of those musical tricks not all composers can pull off. Haydn, of course, is one of history's great tricksters, so this Minuet gains substance and momentum by way of its G-minor Trio.
Galloping or not, the last movement is in turn both fiery and charming. It also boasts some brilliant exhibitionism from the first violin; Haydn knew how to ingratiate himself to his players and his public.
- Orrin Howard, who served the Los Angeles Philharmonic for many years as Director of Publications and Archives, continues to contribute to the program book.