About this Piece
When Haydn began a catalog of his own compositions around 1765, the 12 string quartets he had written a few years before were simply lumped in with “divertimentos” for various combinations of instruments. But five years later, he had an astonishing burst of quartet creativity and produced several sets that plucked the medium from that generic bin and gave the string quartet permanent pride-of-place on the chamber music shelf.
Chief among these were the six quartets of his Opus 20, composed in 1772. Why Haydn took up the quartet medium at this time—and took it in such an original direction—is uncertain. His employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, had no use for string quartets; his favorite instrument was the baryton, an oddball string instrument much like a bass viol, for which Haydn wrote a seemingly endless stream of chamber music. Opus 20 was dedicated to another Hungarian nobleman, Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, who loved chamber music and may have arranged their first performances.
Opus 20 was first published in Paris in 1774—an indication of how popular and widely known Haydn already was—and soon had many other editions. Beethoven would study Opus 20 in 1793 before he began composing his own quartets, copying out No. 1. Later, the autograph manuscript was owned by Johannes Brahms, who annotated the quartets.
In style and scope, these quartets follow developments Haydn was pioneering in his symphonies under the influence of “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress), an Austro-German aesthetic and philosophical reaction against French rationalism, led by the writing of Johann von Goethe. This movement valued subjective expression and originality over the logical order of rationalism and the courtly manners of the then-prevalent rococo and galant styles.
The impact of this is heard immediately in this D-major quartet. It opens softly with five enigmatic six-bar phrases, followed by a violent outburst. (And the three repeated notes that start the phrases become a sonic signature for this quartet.) It then goes boldly where no quartet had gone in terms of dramatic adventure, including the kind of silent pause and false recapitulation for which Haydn would become famous.
String quartet texture had previously been dominated by the first violin; in the poignant variations of the “affettuoso” (affectionately) slow movement, Haydn shares the thematic wealth among all four instruments. The minuet is “alla zingarese” (in Gypsy style) and utterly undanceable by anyone trained at court rather than in taverns. The final Presto continues “scherzando” (jokingly) with “Gypsy” elements and surprising harmonic and rhythmic twists, before disappearing in a whisper. —John Henken