Haydn and the early embers of romanticism

Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774 - 1840): “The Cross Beside the Baltic.”
Friedrich was the great master of German Romantic painting.

(NOTE: This summer we’ll be playing Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 20, No. 3.)

There was a lot going on in 1772. The world of ideas was in turmoil as the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment encountered the early embers of romanticism, which were later to consume it altogether. Rousseau, Voltaire, Schiller, Goethe, were talking up individualism, man’s role in human society, and man as part of nature (not above it). Meanwhile, the French revolution was brewing, and George Washington, 40 years old, was on the cusp of the defining period of his life and that of his fledgling nation.

Emanuel Leutze (1816 - 1868): “Washington Crossing the Delaware”
Washington himself became a subject for painters of the new romanticism in art.

Joseph Haydn was also 40 - their birthdays were weeks apart – and working hard at the Esterházy Palace where he was Kappelmeister for the Prince, organizing musical activities, conducting the house orchestra, and writing music for this most musical of royal families. It was in this heady atmosphere that the set of six Opus 20 quartets was composed. It is difficult to convey just how forward-looking these works were. Haydn didn’t change the rules of how to compose a string quartet as much as write them, and with such confidence that we’ve come to take his radical work completely for granted.

Schloss Esterházy: charming and cozy summer getaway,
126 rooms, parking, no AC

Up until then, the modern string quartet didn’t exist. Chamber music in the 18th Century consisted of divertimenti: literally musical “diversions.” This was predictable court music designed for easy consumption or dancing. New ideas permeating the zeitgeist, such as Goethe’s literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”), had an electrifying effect on Haydn which is manifested in this ground-breaking set of quartets. For instance, revolutionary concepts of political liberty led Haydn to turn from the tyranny of an autocratic first violin towards a democratic meeting of minds. In the Opus 20 quartets, the other voices - second violin, viola, and cello - all have a vital role to play instead of acting as musical cannon fodder. Similarly, the new ideas of individualism led Haydn to explore uncharted territories of musical expression with unusual rhythms, shocking silences, and asymmetrical melodies that stuck a thumb into traditional phrasing.

Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy (1714 – 1790) looking dyspeptic

Rejecting what he increasingly perceived as ossified neoclassical constrictions of simplicity and symmetry, Haydn looked for guidance a hundred years earlier in the Baroque Era. Here, in the contrapuntal music of Bach and Handel, he found music where every part is doing something interesting versus early classical homophonic music where one leader plays the melody and the other musicians merely connect the harmonic dots. Indeed, Haydn ended no less than three of the Opus 20 quartets with a fugue, that ancient but neglected art-form that was Bach’s signature technique.

Legendary for its acoustics and still in use today,
the “Haydnsaal” at Schloss Esterházy,
where Haydn conducted the Prince’s orchestra

However, if looking way back provided structural models, it was the inchoate ideas of early Romanticism that most inspired Haydn’s explorations. The emotionally stunted galante style of polite, courtly music gave way to heart-rending slow movements, ferocious finales, and gypsy-like minuets whose roots in folk music were to prove harbingers of nationalism, laying foundations which centuries later led to seminal works from composers as diverse as Bartók in Hungary , Vaughan-Williams in England, and Aaron Copland in America.

Man as part of nature: the evocative etchings of Roman ruins by
Giovanni Baptista Piranesi (1720 – 1778)
were powerful drivers of the romantic spirit

Imagine hearing Opus 20, Number 3 while sitting next to the Prince and hearing him chuckle when the melody jolts to a sudden stop, or seeing him try to tap his foot to a minuet impossible to dance to which ends with that most romantic of markings: perdendosi - getting lost. The heart of the work is a tender third movement featuring a love duo between first violin and cello. The Finale begins mysteriously, followed by a middle section teetering on the edge of control, and finishes with a hushed whisper. The chutzpah required to bring the listener on a grand journey through four movements and end with a whimper is breathtaking.

David Yang, Artistic Director


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