STRING QUARTET IN A MAJOR, Op. 20, No.6
I. Allegro di Molto e Scherzando
II. Adagio, Cantabile
III. Minuetto. Allegretto
IV. Fuga a 3 Soggetti. Allegro
The peasant son of a wagon maker, Haydn looked back on his childhood as "more floggings than food" and even when he made it big he always kept that earthy connection in his music. Early on he showed great promise in music and joined the cathedral choir in Vienna where he thrived until his voice broke (he could have remained if he elected to go the castratti route). Much of his early career was spent living hand to mouth and, in his own words, he was "a wizard on no instrument...eking out a wretched existence." Yet through work, talent, and luck, he was appointed Kapellmeister to the Hungarian Prince Esterházy. It was during his first years at the Esterhazy court that Haydn wrote his set of Opus 20 quartets, single-handedly establishing the form; Mozart wrote: "it was from Haydn that I first learned the true way to write string quartets.” Beethoven studied Opus 20, copying them out by hand, andBrahms bought the autograph manuscript, adding his own annotations.
Students are often assigned these quartets before they tackle supposedly more “difficult” music and they complain that the first violin gets to do all the fun heavy lifting. There is truth in this. Bartok’s quartets, for example, are massively challenging to everyone, Schoenberg gives each instrument a different melody simultaneously (which can result in chaos unless you are careful), Mendelssohn can leave us pleasantly breathless, and nobody can reflect the infinite variety of the human condition like Beethoven. But Haydn might be the only composer I would play with delight every day for the rest of my life. Most of his quartets could be described as “perfect” and, even when he is imperfect, he is perfect in his imperfection. I realize that sounds like musicological bat droppings and it is hard to explain. It is just that Haydn’s quartets are the base line for comparison for everything that followed. If Beethoven broke the mold then it was Haydn who made it in the first place.
Program notes by David Yang