String Quartet in C major, Hob. III:32, Op.20 No.2
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Haydn went to work for the princely house of Esterházy in 1761. His responsibilities were extensive: composing and supervising performance of all the court’s church music and operas. He rehearsed, coached, and directed all other facets of in-house musical activity for both sacred and entertainment music. The prince's court orchestra included some excellent players, who inspired Haydn to write many of his instrumental concertos.

Between 1769 and 1772, his duties were somewhat lighter, permitting him some free time to compose works beyond those specifically requested by the Prince. In string quartets, which he still called divertimenti à quattro [divertimenti in four parts] on his manuscripts, he could write in a concertante style for his first chair players. The seamless elegance and virtuosic difficulty of the string writing is a reminder how accomplished the Prince's musicians were.

The Opus 20 quartets, which date from 1772, have a curious publication history. Haydn waited nearly three years after composing them to see them in print. Johann André published the first edition in Offenbach-am-Main in 1775. Four years later, an edition issued in Berlin by the house of Hummel pictured a rising sun on its frontispiece. The image stuck, resulting in the set becoming collectively known as the "Sun" Quartets. A Viennese edition, published by Artaria in 1801, was dedicated to Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, who is better known as a friend and patron of Beethoven.

The phrase that recurs most frequently in written discussions of the Op. 20 quartets is "emancipation of the cello." The early 1770s were a period of transition in music. Rococo and style galant elements were ceding to what we call the high classic style. Symphonies composed during these years still include harpsichord as a component of continuo; the other key component was cello. Although the cello anchored the bass line in late Baroque and early classical era music, it was relegated to a supporting harmonic role, and rarely assumed a melodic lead.

In Opus 20, Haydn made a decisive change in the quartet fabric by allotting significantly more importance to the cello part. Four of the six quartets have fugal finales in which, by definition, the players have more balanced distribution of material. In this C major Quartet, however, Haydn spotlights the cello straight out of the box, declaiming the main theme with all the panache of a first violinist. Viola really functions as the bass in the first movement. Haydn exploits the cello’s range in the chromatic development section, often pairing it in duets with first violin for transitional passage work. Strong contrapuntal elements throughout the opening Moderato add textural interest.

The slow movement Adagio draws on both the operatic convention of accompanied recitative and the tradition of the instrumental fantasy. Rhythmic freedom prevails. Haydn opens with an extended unison, once again giving cello the first solo statement of the theme. Unison statements recur periodically, alternating with occasional recitative-like gestures. The cantabile second theme in E-flat major emerges as a ray of sunshine amid all the drama; this is the first violin’s moment to shine.

After a return to minor mode, the slow movement moves attacca [without pause] to the Menuetto. Once again Haydn is full of surprises, altering his texture from as few as two parts to as many as five. He introduces more unisons in the Trio section, which is unusually chromatic.

The finale, Fuga a 4 Soggetti [Fugue with 4 Subjects] is Opus 20's crowning glory in terms of counterpoint: the first great fugue in the string quartet literature. Haydn’s four parts are closely related, yet independent. Written sotto voce [with subdued sound] almost throughout, this movement is a masterpiece of understatement. Its culmination in a buoyant forte close is rich reward after a breathtaking ride.

Quartet in A, Op. 13, "Ist es wahr?"
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

The genius stories about young Felix Mendelssohn are well known to most music lovers. He had penned the splendid Octet, Op. 20, at age 16, and within a year had written his magical Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21. These two masterpieces on their own would have earned him a place in music history, even had he not gone on to compose the "Hebrides" Overture, the "Italian" Symphony, Elijah, the Violin Concerto, and dozens of other magnificent works.

Mendelssohn played a key role in the "rediscovery" of Johann Sebastian Bach's music in the 19th century. During his late 'teens, he also became engrossed in the music of Beethoven, an absorption that bore fruit in the 1827 string quartet we hear this evening.

Beethoven may seem an unlikely model for the refined and elegant Mendelssohn. Generally speaking, Mendelssohn is regarded as the most classic of the German romantics, taking Mozart as his model. Beethoven was indisputably the most influential figure of the first half of the 19th century, however, and it makes perfectly good sense that Mendelssohn would make it his business to acquaint himself thoroughly with Beethoven's music. The late quartets held a particular fascination for young Felix, especially the A minor Quartet, Opus 132. Although that quartet was not published until the end of 1827, Mendelssohn had certainly heard it performed. A comparison of Opus 132 with Mendelssohn's A major quartet, Op. 13, makes it clear that Beethoven's work served as a model for the 18-year-old composer.

For those who do not know Opus 132 well, the Beethovenian spirit of Mendelssohn's music should still be apparent. Surprisingly, this quartet borrows more from the stormy, passionate character of middle-period Beethoven than it does the transcendent beauty of the late works. This is particularly evident in Mendelssohn's liberal use of recitative style, most prominently in the finale.

The subtitle of Mendelssohn's quartet is that of his song, "Ist es wahr?" ("Is it true?", Op. 9, No. 1, also known as "Frage" [Question]. Mendelssohn wrote it in 1827, the same year as the quartet, while on holiday at Sakrow, near Potsdam. He had gone there for a rest and a change of scenery, to visit some family friends. Apparently he became enamoured of a young lady there. The attachment was short-lived, and the girl's identity is unknown. "Ist es wahr?" is thought to be an expression of his romantic devotion. It is brief: a mere 24 bars in A-major on one page of music. The declamatory text is by Johann Gustav Droysen, known as Voss, an historian and Felix's good friend.

Ist es wahr? ist es wahr? dass du stets dort in dem Laubgang,
an der Weinwand meiner harrst und den Mondschein und die Sternlein
auch nach mir befragst?
Ist es wahr? Sprich! Was ich fühle, das begreift nur,
die es mitfühlt, und die treu mir ewig bleibt.

Essentially the speaker asks his beloved if it is true that she always waits for him in the arbored walk. The song appears in full in the quartet score. In 19th-century salon performances, the song would precede the quartet. Mendelssohn incorporates its opening motive as a motto in the quartet's slow introduction, and brings it back in the finale. Listeners familiar with the piano literature will note a striking resemblance to the Absence motif from Beethoven's piano sonata, "Les Adieux."

The least Beethovenian movement is the Intermezzo, which encloses a decidedly Mendelssohnian scherzo section within a capricious folk tale. The dramatic recitative-cum-tremolando that opens the stormy finale reëstablishes the hegemony of Beethoven's influence in this startling work.

Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major, Op.130 with Grosse Fuge, Op.133
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The Russian Prince Nikolas Galitzin, an amateur cellist who was fond of playing chamber music, wrote to Beethoven late in 1822 asking for “one, two, or three new quartets.” Beethoven accepted the commission, but was diverted by engrossing work on his Missa Solemnis, Op. 123, the Diabelli Variations, Op. 120, and the Ninth Symphony, Op.125. He kept his patron waiting a long time, thereby incurring Galitzin's impatience and irritation. Finally, in 1824 and 1825 Beethoven turned his energy to the quartets, fulfilling and exceeding Galitzin's request, leaving the world a legacy far greater than the Russian prince can possibly have imagined.

We all know that the late Beethoven quartets constitute not only the crown jewels of the string quartet repertoire, but also Beethoven's supreme artistic achievement. That does not make them one whit easier to digest or understand. Nearly two centuries after they were written, Beethoven's late-harvest chamber works continue to confound, mystify, and enrapture us. The five final quartets are both concentrated and expansive, the ultimate absolute music, pregnant with a philosophy words cannot express.

Opus 130 in B-flat major was the third quartet Beethoven completed in fulfillment of Prince Galitzin’s commission. Beethoven's good friend Ignaz Schuppanzigh and his quartet played the first performance on 21 March, 1826 in Vienna. The audience loved the shorter, more melodious Presto and Alla danza tedesca, demanding encores of both. They were mystified, however, by the two slow movements and in particular by the finale, which they found incoherent. For the composer, who did not attend the premiere, all that mattered was the success of the finale. When Karl Holz, then his personal secretary and second violinist in the Schuppanzigh Quartet, told him of the encores, Beethoven is said to have snapped back with irritation, "Yes, these delicacies! Why not the Fugue?" adding his opinion of the audience: "Cattle! Asses!"

It was to be expected that the Viennese would be puzzled by the quartet, and particularly by the monumental finale. The work was enigmatic and long: six movements was a lot of unfamiliar new music by Beethoven, and the finale, the Grosse Fuge, was too much for them to grasp at one sitting. At the first performance the fugue was deemed incomprehensible in itself, and too weighty to serve as a conclusion for the quartet. Karl Holz reported – diplomatically – that the premiere audience was inspired, astonished, or questioning. They failed to find fault with the fugue only because of their awe of Beethoven.

Beethoven's friends and publisher were able to persuade him, in this lone case, to cede to public opinion with respect to the fugue. In an unprecedented move, Beethoven withdrew the movement and substituted an alternate finale to Op. 130. He did so with the understanding that the withdrawn movement would be issued separately, and for an additional fee. The fugue was published posthumously as Opus 133; and in a second version for one piano, four-hands, as Opus 134. The Rondo movement composed as the replacement finale for Op. 130 was his last completed composition. In performance, quartets are faced with an either/or situation. Most recordings use the Rondo, sometimes adding the Grosse Fuge as an enormous postscript.

At more than sixteen minutes, the Grosse Fuge is a colossus, daunting by its sheer size. In many ways it is the consummation of a lifetime of contrapuntal study. Rhythmically jerky, even violent, the music strains from within, placing enormous demands on both performers and listeners. Two inherently incompatible fugue subjects struggle together in musical combat. Beethoven scholar Denis Matthews gives an idea of the Grosse Fuge’s kaleidoscopic moods:

Its official title is really a misnomer, for the movement incorporates an introduction, a double fugue, a slower and only mildly contrapuntal section brought about with an abrupt modulation from B-flat to G-flat, a scherzo that is soon overwhelmed by a resumption of the fiercest fugal developments, followed by a stream of afterthoughts and retrospects.

Whether or not one comprehends the stunning musical craftsmanship of Beethoven's polyphonic technique, the Grosse Fuge makes an heroic impression. Musicians and scholars have continued to argue the merits of the fugue vs. the alternate finale for Op.130. Each string quartet must choose which version feels right for them. Tonight we hear Opus 130 as Beethoven originally conceived it.

By Laurie Shulman © 2018
First North American Serial Rights Only