Skip to page content

Haydn’s “Kaiser” quartet was a product of the years after his triumphant London visits of 1791-92 and 1794-95. In England he had been exposed to a newly emerging genre: the national anthem. Back in Vienna, Haydn mentioned to Baron von Swieten, Prefect of the Imperial Court Library and friend and patron to many composers, that while Napoleon’s France threatened the Austrian empire, it would be good to have something to rally patriotic hearts and spur military recruitment the way “God Save the King” did in England. Swieten helped arrange for a prominent poet to write “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” (God Save Emperor Franz), to which Haydn composed an instant and enduring classic in 1797. This “Kaiserlied” quickly acquired national status, although the Austrian government, as conservative in its procedures as in its politics, did not officially adopt it as the national anthem until 1847. Meanwhile, the song migrated out of Austria and acquired a set of words that began “Deutschland über Alles” in 1841, 30 years before Germany became a unified country. In 1922 the Weimar Republic adopted it and, despite its use by the Nazis, it remains the German national anthem. The tune has also been turned into Christian and Masonic hymns. Haydn always loved it. In his final years, when he was unable to compose (an unknown illness changed Haydn from a vigorous, creative 70-year-old to a feeble 71-year-old), he would play it on his piano and weep. 

A few months after composing the anthem, Haydn made it the centerpiece of one of his boldest and brightest quartets. Its first movement mixes energetic high spirits, intricate counterpoint, and some harmonic adventures that foreshadow Schubert, who in 1797 was busy being born. Just before the recapitulation, the principal theme turns into a welcome-to-rural-Hungary folk dance (complete with droning bagpipes or hurdy-gurdies) in E major, then into a spooky little variation in E minor, which gives way, without the slightest regard for convention, to the original theme in the original C major.

The second movement is a set of variations on the Kaiserlied. Haydn leaves the melody unaltered (a mark of his regard for it), changing only the accompaniment as each instrument takes a turn with it. The third movement continues the first movement’s intriguing juxtaposition of major and minor, but is, rhythmically speaking, a fairly conventional minuet, which is a surprise coming from a composer who liked to stretch the minuet form beyond its dance origins.

The finale is a violent tempest in C minor that looks back to Haydn’s Sturm und Drang period of 30 years earlier, and forward to Beethoven’s early quartets of a few years later. When the key of C major finally reappears in the coda, it seems less an inevitable development than torrential rain finally ending and the sun coming out, even while the wind is still blowing.

-- Notes by Howard Posner