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Hyperion Records

CDA66621 - Haydn: Sun Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3

Recording details: December 1991
Holmbury St Mary Women's Institute Hall, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Roy Mowatt
Engineered by Keith Warren
Release date: November 1992
DISCID: 9611980C
Total duration: 73 minutes 45 seconds

'The Salomon's beautiful playing of these important masterpieces make this set indispensable' (Gramophone)

'The dedication, beauty and vitality of the interpretations are of the highest order… a Haydn monument as important to the 90s as the one by the Pro Arte was to the 30s' (Chicago Tribune)

Sun Quartets Nos 1, 2 & 3
Allegro moderato  [9'41]
Presto  [3'45]
Moderato  [10'16]
Poco adagio  [10'04]
Allegro molto  [6'03]
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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
When Haydn completed his Opus 20 String Quartets in 1772 he was in his fortieth year and was on the brink of international fame. Since 1761 he had been in the service of the Esterházy family at their castle in Eisenstadt, east of Vienna, or, after the mid-1760s, mainly at the palace of Eszterháza, over the present-day border with Hungary on the other side of the Neusiedlersee.

Haydn's duties at Eszterháza were many, varied and time-consuming. He was responsible for the conduct of the musicians subordinate to him, also for the purchase and care of music and instruments and for the composition, rehearsal and direction of all the music required by his employer. Prince Nikolaus Esterházy wanted music for varied chamber combinations (often featuring his own instrument, the baryton), symphonies and concertos for the small but excellent resident orchestra, church music for the chapel, and, from the late 1760s, operas and incidental music for the puppets of the Eszterháza marionette theatre, and for the human performers of the nearby opera house.

Haydn was required by the terms of his contract to compose music on demand for his employer, and was forbidden to give away or publish it without permission, or to compose for other patrons. Nevertheless, his international reputation, which blossomed in the late 1760s and early 1770s, was acquired almost entirely through the circulation of manuscript copies of his music, many of which were eventually printed in Amsterdam, Paris and London. This was unusual in an age when the modern system of disseminating music through publications was in its infancy, and when composers tended to be the principal exponents of their own music. Haydn's Quartets were important in this process, for they were published more frequently, consistently and widely than the rest of his music. The 1764 Paris edition of his Opus 1 Quartets, issued by Louis Balthasar de la Chevardičre in Paris, may well be the first publication of music by him, and it was soon followed by a steady stream of his quartets from, among others, Johann Julius Hummel in Amsterdam, and John Bremner ln London. His Opus 20 Quartets were first published in 1774 by de la Chevardičre, but they acquired their nickname 'the Sun Quartets' from the slightly later Hummel edition, which has a fine title-page in neo-Classical style (reproduced here) with the head of the sun god at the top. Haydn may not have been 'the father of the string quartet', as used to be thought in the nineteenth century, but publications of his early quartets certainly popularised the genre all over Europe.

Indeed, until then — the 1760s — most string quartets were written by Austrians or south Germans, such as the Mannheim composer Franz Xaver Richter (1709-89) or the Viennese Georg Matthias Monn (1717-1750), though there is a clear line of descent from the Italian concerto a quattro of Vivaldi and his contemporaries. Haydn knew and contributed to two sorts of quartet: a backward-looking learned type, characterised by Baroque harmonies, elaborate counterpoint and independent writing for the four instruments, often cast in the form of a prelude and fugue, and a forward-looking type, frequently called 'divertimento', characterised by simple harmonies, homophonic textures, and much 'orchestral' doubling of the tune and bass. Haydn initially preferred the latter: he described all his quartets up to and including Opus 20 as 'divertimenti', and his first ten have five movements, with two minuets (a characteristic of other types of divertimento), as well as thin 'orchestral' textures; one of them also served as a symphony, with oboe and horn parts. Haydn began to turn to more serious things with his Opp 9 and 17, written respectively in 1769-70 and 1771. They now have four movements, are written with greater subtlety and imagination, and show a new spirit of enquiry and experiment.

In his Opus 20 Quartets, witten in 1772, Haydn carried the process a stage further. Two of the six are in the minor (No 3 in G minor and No 5 in F minor), while No 2 in C major and No 4 in D major have slow movements in the tonic minor instead of the expected dominant. Haydn, like most of his contemporaries, rarely cast his early works in the minor; he used it for only two of the twenty-odd quartets before Op 20 — Opp 9/4 and 17/4. At a time when composers were increasingly associating the major with joy, affirmation and celebration, and the minor with tragedy, pathos and drama (Baroque composers routinely wrote seemingly joyful works in the minor), such a change was highly significant, evidence of a new vein of seriousness in Haydn's approach to composition. It has been connected with the German Sturm und Drang literary movement, but it could as easily have come from opera; Haydn was preoccupled with the opera house at Eszterháza in the late 1760s and wrote three operas between 1766 and 1769. The standard types of rage and despair arias in mid-century Italian opera would have provided Haydn with fruitful models for that vein of nervous and wayward Angst that we associate with his so-called Sturm und Drang period. More generally, comic opera provided Haydn with a model for a new type of quartet writing: the fast and furious interaction of character in opera ensembles, set to a witty dialogue type of music based on the idea of question and answer, enabled Haydn to create a conversational type of quartet writing that freed the four instruments from their traditional roles.

The aspect of Opus 20 most remarked upon, however, is its preoccupation with counterpoint. Three of the Quartets — Nos 2, 5 and 6 — have last movements cast as elaborate fugues, with four, two, and three subjects respectively, and in many of the other movements freer contrapuntal writing is prominently used. The first movement of Op 20/2, for instance, opens with a passage of triple invertible counterpoint based on a Baroque cadential progression, reminiscent of the opening of Handel's 'Where e'er you walk'. The model for this sort of thing was not Bach and Handel, as used to be thought (their music only became well-known in Vienna in the 1780s and '90s), but the learned type of Austrian string quartet, exemplified most recently by the works of Albrechtsberger, Carlo d'Ordonez and Florian Gassmann. Yet for Haydn counterpoint was not an end in itself but a means of heightening the contrasts in the music and widening its emotional range. In Op 20 the learned and 'divertimento' types of Viennese quartet are brought together for the first time, creating a mixture of comic and serious elements that many found hard to take. Charles Burney quoted the opinion of an unnamed friend in Hamburg (C P E Bach?) who wrote to him in 1772 complaining about the 'mixture of serious and comic' in Haydn and some of his contemporaries: 'There is more of the latter than the former in their works; and as for rules, they know but little of them.' But this 'mixture of serious and comic' was to became the chief characteristic of the late-Classical style, ensuring that Haydn's Quartets occupied a central place in the development of the genre.

Peter Holman © 1992

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