Haydn’s Sun Quartets part III

wed 28 oct 2020

By Thijs Bonger

This is the third and final article about Haydn’s String Quartets Op. 20. who got the nickname ‘Sun Quartets’ because Hummel, the publisher from Amsterdam, depicted a rising sun on the title page in 1772. How relevant: precisely these quartets heralded a completely new era for the string quartet genre.

Nicknames of compositions are more or less jumped at by the audience. And even more so in Haydn’s gigantic – and sometimes somewhat despondent – oeuvre. Where on earth do you start if you find out that Haydn wrote 68 string quartets? Or, even worse, 104 symphonies. Opus numbers are difficult to memorize. This explains why we are attracted, like a magnet, to compositions with nicknames. There is, however, a risk in this, because the works with nicknames are not necessarily the best ones. This said, the importance of the revolutionary ‘Sun Quartets’ is beyond dispute. Generations of composers after Haydn wrote their string quartets based on Haydn’s model. With four somewhat related parts and equivalency for the four strings. The importance of this was soon recognized by Mozart, who probably also played these quartets together with Haydn. And by Beethoven, who was tutored by Haydn, and who often copied whole parts of the ‘Sun Quartets’ by hand, to take a look in Haydn’s kitchen. Brahms, too, apprehensive of the difficult string quartet genre, in which a composer is completely exposed, found these quartets of Haydn so important that he had a considerable amount of money to purchase the original manuscripts.

Haydn’s Fifth
This was different for Haydn’s contemporaries, according to a reviewer: “The listeners admired Haydn’s brilliant ideas and his imagination, but they found his mixture of the comic and the serious terrible, especially because the comic prevailed.” This makes you wonder whether this reviewer had listened to number 5 of the ‘Sun Quartets’ as well because lovers of seriousness and drama will be in their element. It is truly a Sturm und Drang quartet. Around 1770, Sturm und Drang was a literary movement, the German response to cold French Rationalism. The emotions that were suppressed, became important again. Almost the whole piece seems to be bitter and melancholic. Even the complex fugue at the end cannot escape this mood. There are a few optimistic moments in the opening section, but the fierce and sad mood prevails. Towards the end, Haydn does in coda some harmoniously adventurous things. The minuet is far from cheerful as well, but the middle part in Major – the so-called trio – gives a chance to the leader to show off his Viennese charm. The adagio sways elegantly and is full of frisky turns from the leader. Haydn experiments occasionally with dissonances in this part as well, something many of his contemporaries could not appreciate.

At that time, many eyebrows were probably raised during the stern fugue in the finale. Writing fugues was a thing of the past. Did Haydn prove that he was still capable of mastering the old craft? Partly. He also acted on emperor Joseph II’s love for the fugue. One of the themes that he used for the fugue, can also be heard in Händel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Requiem. This part must be played constantly rather softly, which in combination with the dramatic key gradually builds up tension. Its discharge only comes towards the end with a sudden fortissimo, in which the theme is also suddenly played as a canon. Two strong chords create a desolate conclusion.

A change of direction
The nature of No. 6 from the series is completely different. Light-hearted, lyrical, and sometimes comical. The light-heartedness starts immediately at the opening section, where Haydn wrote ‘scherzando’ above. One of the things Haydn was very good at, was in changing his mind. Often, he stops in the middle of a musical sentence and takes a direction that you do not expect. In this respect, Carl Philip Emanuel Bach – who was also very fickle – was his great example. In the following adagio, we are plunging into seriousness. This part is very similar to an opera aria for the first violin. But sometimes it is a duet when the viola plays beautiful counter melodies. The minuet is short but powerful.

Are you looking for a good recording? There are a lot of options. The Doric String Quartet, the Chiaroscuro Quartet on period instruments, the Hagen Quartet, Canadian St. Lawrence String Quartet, the Auryn Quartet who recorded all of Haydn’s quartets, and, last but not least, the Dutch Dudok Quartet.