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Hyperion Records

CDA66821 - Haydn: Prussian Quartets Nos 1-3
Recording details: May 1993
St Mary's Church, Fetcham, Surrey, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Keith Warren
Release date: May 1994
Total duration: 73 minutes 42 seconds


'Das Salomon-Quartett erweist sich als Glücksfall für eine derartig reiche und vielschichtige Musik' (Fono Forum, Germany)

'Forthright, lucid. sharp-witted performances' (Gramophone)

Prussian Quartets Nos 1-3
Allegro  [9'21]
Adagio  [7'27]
Vivace  [10'12]
Adagio  [4'38]
Allegro con brio  [7'53]
Finale: Presto  [5'02]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
On 5 April 1784 Joseph Haydn wrote to the Viennese music publishers Artaria and Co accepting an offer of three hundred florins for a set of new string quartets, which he thought would be finished that July. In fact Artaria had to wait three years, until July 1787, before they received all six of the set that was to become known as Opus 50.

In his 1784 letter Haydn stipulated that he should either receive twelve free copies of the completed publication, or should be free to choose the dedicatee. (It was common practice at the time to dedicate published works to members of the aristocracy in the hope of receiving a gift in return.) We do not know exactly what transpired, but in April 1787 Haydn sent King Frederick William II of Prussia a copy of his 'Paris' symphonies, and received a ring in exchange. On 19 May he informed Artaria in a letter that he felt 'deeply in His Majesty's debt because of this present', and added: 'I can think of no better and more fitting way to show my thankfulness to His Majesty (and also in the eyes of the whole world) than by dedicating these 6 Quartets to him; but you won't be satisfied with that, because you will want to dedicate the works yourself, and to someone else. But to make amends for this loss, I promise to give you other pieces free of charge.' In the event, the quartets were finally published in the autumn of 1787 by Artaria, with a dedication to 'Sa Majesté Frederic Guillaume II Roi de Prusse'. Frederick William II (1744-1797), nephew of Frederick the Great, was one of the most notable patrons of music in eighteenth-century Germany.

Opus 50 was the first complete set of quartets Haydn had published for five years, since the Opus 33 Quartets of 1782. They were eagerly anticipated by chamber music enthusiasts all over Europe and were quickly republished by Seiber in Paris, by Hummel in Berlin, and by Forster in London. As early as 1783 a writer in Cramer's Magazin der Musik praised Haydn's 'wonderful sonatas' that had 'provided many a piano player with antispasmotica against sorrow and misfortune', and requested something similar for 'languishing violinists.' Haydn was commissioned in 1784 by a Spanish patron to write a set of short quartets, but only seems to have been completed one of them, which was published in 1785 as Opus 42. In the next year he received another Spanish commission, for a set of orchestral pieces to be performed in a Cádiz church on Good Friday. Haydn's own string quartet arrangement of The Seven Last Words, as the work was called, was published in 1787 as Opus 51 and quickly became an outstanding success.

In The Seven Last Words Haydn developed a novel conversational idiom derived from vocal music, half motivic, half contrapuntal, and dramatic in tone. It became the basis of his later quartet style, and Haydn particularly used it in Opus 50 to free the cello from its traditional role as the provider of simple bass parts. Frederick William II was a keen amateur cellist, and collected chamber music with prominent cello parts. In 1786, the year of his accession, he obtained quartets of this sort from Pleyel, and engaged Boccherini as his Chamber composer. Boccherini was a cellist himself, wrote many quartets with brilliant cello parts, and developed new type of string quintet with two cellos instead of two violas. Mozart's 'Prussian Quartets' (K575, K589 and K590) also have prominent cello parts, and were written as part of a commission from the king for a set of six quartets, never completed.

As we might expect, Haydn did not respond to the challenge of writing for Frederick William by giving him concerto-like passages, for that would have fatally weakened his spare, concentrated musical architecture. But he obviously had the cellist king in mind in the first quartet, which begins with two bars from the cello alone, and ends with a cadence decorated a rapid scale in the bass. Similarly, the cello has elaborate figuration in the Adagio of the second quartet, and has an unusually prominent role in the Andante of the third quartet, announcing the theme, and frequently presenting it on its subsequent returns. In this movement, and in one or two other places, the cello is even given solos above the viola, which temporarily acts as the bass.

Critics have often heard the influence of Mozart in the Opus 50 Quartets. Haydn and Mozart seem to have become friends in 1784, the probable year of the famous quartet party, described by Michael Kelly, in which Haydn (violin 1), Dittersdorf (violin 2), Mozart (viola), and Vanhal (cello) played together in Stephen Storace's Viennese apartment. Early in 1785 Haydn told Leopold Mozart that 'your son is the greatest composer I know, either personally or by reputation', and Mozart junior returned the compliment later in the year when he wrote the famous letter of dedication to Haydn, entrusting his newly-published set of quartets to 'the protection and guidance of a highly celebrated man … and my dearest friend.'

Under the circumstances, it is surprising that there are not more Mozartean traits in Opus 50. The most obvious is Haydn's use of a relaxed, expansive march-like rhythm in the first movements of the first and sixth Quartets. But Haydn still preferred to write wiry, terse, and virtually mono-thematic movements instead of the melodious, discursive and elegant type favoured by Mozart in his earlier music. On the whole, Opus 50 is a more serious set of quartets than Opus 33, with its 'scherzi' (jokes), and its rapid scherzo-like minuets — or, for that matter, than his 'Paris' symphonies, written at the same time, with their folk-like tunes popular idiom. But, as Paul Griffiths has pointed out (The String Quartet, 1985, p 53), Haydn is still occasionally capable of 'sheer silliness', as in the last movement of the Sixth Quartet, which is dominated by a passage of rapid-fire bariolage (repeated notes produced by alternating adjacent strings). It suggests the croaking of a frog, hence the work's nickname.

Peter Holman © 1994

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