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Haydn is known as the “Father of the String Quartet,” and for good reason. The divertimentos of his Opp. 1 and 2 may not have been the absolute first of the genre chronologically (but possibly – even plausibly – so; it’s complicated), but none of his contemporaries in the 1750s could match him for quantity or quality. His list today stands at nearly 70, not including a number of authentic arrangements, and his works were widely traveled in manuscript (later in print) and much discussed and emulated by other musicians, including Mozart.

In the early 1770s, Haydn produced more divertimentos for string quartet, three sets of six each, Opp. 9, 17, and 20. Opus 33 – another set of six – followed about ten years later, composed in 1781 and published in 1782. These were his first string quartets that actually used that name, instead of divertimento. In December of 1781, Haydn wrote a number of letters (three survive) to potential patrons/subscribers of the set describing how they had been written in a new and special way. This was not just a marketing pitch; where Op. 20 had been music of “storm and stress,” full of fugues and dark minor keys, Op. 33 was in the balanced – though utterly personal – Classical style we associate with mature Haydn.

Perhaps the most significant single element of that personal Classical style is humor, or wit. One the nicknames that this new set picked up early on was ”Gli scherzi” (The Jokes). (They are also known as the “Russian” Quartets because they were dedicated to a Russian nobleman and premiered at the Vienna apartment of his wife on Christmas Day, 1781.) This was probably because this was also Haydn’s first set in which scherzos replaced minuets, but beyond that specific bit of nomenclature (more in a bit), these works are full of the musical equivalents of pratfalls and one-liners.

And the second quartet of the set is specifically nicknamed “The Joke” because it ends with the most obvious one; spoiler alert! The last movement is a rondo, a form in which a principal theme alternates with contrasting tunes, usually in another key. The main theme of this one is fleet and joyful. After the final contrasting – extremely so – section, it returns as expected, only to be filled with hesitant pauses, as though Haydn – or the performers – are uncertain about when they have reached the end. The last pause grows anxiously, to be finished off with a soft whisper: more question than answer. In some ways, this movement is almost a parody of the “storm and stress” drama in Haydn’s Op. 20 quartets.

What Haydn had in mind with the “new and special way” he wrote about, however, was not the jokes so much as a fresh way of elaborating themes immediately, exploding them into small fragments which can be manipulated and recombined in many ways. This is quickly apparent in the first movement, with the buoyant opening theme fractured as soon as it is stated, and its component motifs played with dexterously.

The ensuing scherzo movement is not so very much different from Haydn’s previous minuets; a dance maybe more rustic than courtly, but in the usual triple meter and AB-A form, with a contrasting “Trio” section. The beautifully solemn Largo sostenuto slow movement also shares features of Haydn’s Op. 20 pieces, particularly the counterpoint in instrumental pairs. Even here, though, there is humor as well, in its quirky center section, full of syncopation and carefully gradated dynamics, which have the unsettlingly effect of putting weight on silences and making soft sounds their echo.