Kodaly Quartet. Recorded at Hungaraton, Budapest 28-31 March 1989 and 4-5 March 1989.
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Joseph Haydn was as prolific as any eighteenth century composer, his fecundity a matter, in good part, of the nature of his employment and the length of his life. Bom in 1732 in the village of Rohrau, the son of a wheelwright, he was recruited to the choir of St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna at the age of eight, later earning a living as best he could as a musician in the capital and making useful acquaintances through his association with Metastasio, the Court Poet, and the composer Nicola Porpora.
In 1759, after some eight years of teaching and free-lance performance, whether as violinist or keyboard-player, Haydn found greater security in a position in the household of a Bohemian nobleman, Count Morzin, as director of music, wintering in Vienna and spending the summer on the Count's estate in Bohemia, where an orchestra was available. In 1760 Haydn married the eldest daughter of a wig-maker, a match that was to bring him neither children nor solace, and by the following year he had entered the service of Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy as deputy to the old Kapellmeister Gregor Werner, who had much fault to find with his young colleague. In 1762 Prince Paul Anton died and was succeeded by his brother Prince Nikolaus, who concerned himself with the building of the great palace of Esterhaza. Four years later Kapellmeister Werner died, and Haydn assumed the full duties of the position, spending the larger part of the year at Esterhaza and part of the winter at Eisenstadt, where his first years of service to the Esterhazy family had passed.
Haydn's responsibilities at Esterhaza were manifold. As Kapellmeister he was in full charge of the musicians employed by the Prince, writing music of all kinds, and directing performances both instrumental, operatic and liturgical. This busy if isolated career came to an end with the death of Prince Nikolaus in 1790. From then onwards Haydn had greater freedom, while continuing to enjoy the title and emoluments of his position as Kapellmeister to the Prince's successors.
Haydn's release from his immediate responsibilities allowed him, in 1791, to accept an invitation to visit London, where he provided music for the concerts organised by Johann Peter Salomon. His considerable success led to a second visit in 1794. The following year, at the request of the new Prince Esterhazy, who had succeeded his elder brother in 1794, he resumed some of his earlier duties as Kapellmeister, now in Eisenstadt and in Vienna, where he took up his own residence until his death in 1809.
Haydn was to write some 83 string quartets over a period of forty years. The form itself is closely associated with that of the classical symphony as it developed from the middle of the eighteenth century in Mannheim and elsewhere in south Germany, Austria and Bohemia, emerging from its origins in the Baroque sonata. Haydn's achievement is as remarkable in quality as in quantity, his own development following those of the century, reflecting in the 1780s the influence of his younger contemporary Mozart, who expressed his own debt to Haydn in a set of quartets dedicated to him. In old age he seemed unwilling to follow the uncouth example of the Great Moghul, his recalcitrant pupil Beethoven, whose Opus 18 Quartets were published in 1801. Haydn's last quartet, started in 1803, remained unfinished, his major achievement in the genre ending with the century.
The set of six quartets that Haydn dedicated to Count Erdody was completed in 1797 and published two years later. The Count, who had married in 1796 a woman who was to become a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Beethoven, belonged to a group of noblemen that included Count Apponyi, to whom Haydn dedicated the Opus 74 Quartets, and Prince Lobkowitz, to whom he dedicated the last two completed Quartets, Opus 77. It was to the last that Beethoven dedicated the six Opus 18 Quartets in what must have seemed a deliberate challenge to the older composer.
The first quartet of Opus 76, in the key of G major, allows the cello to declare the first theme, after three opening chords have summoned the listener's attention. The theme is imitated by each instrument in turn, with unexpected harmonies leading to the brief statement of an innocent enough second theme. It is the first theme that dominates the central development, reappearing in the recapitulation with a contrapuntal accompaniment that seems to promise a fugue. The slow movement contrasts a solemn C major melody, accompanied chordally, with a figure that is introduced by the cello against a repeated accompaniment pattern from second violin and viola, to be answered in a rapider figure by the first violin. The lively Minuet has a Trio in which the first violin shows considerable agility, and the final Allegro, which is at first in the key of G minor, establishes a promise of further counterpoint in a movement of considerable harmonic interest in which the opening figure has a significant part to play.
The second quartet of the series, in the key of D minor, earned its nickname of Quinten (Fifths) from the widely spaced descending intervals announced by the first violin in the opening bars, a motif that is to re-appear. The second movement opens in D major and includes a modulating central section and an embellished return of the first theme. This is followed by a movement sometimes known as the Hexenmenuett (Witches' Minuet), in which the two lower strings imitate the two upper, contrasted with the ostinato of its D major Trio. The D minor principal theme of the last movement returns softly in the key of D major and leads forward to a more rapid conclusion in the same key.
The Quartet in C major has become known as the Kaiserquartett (Emperor Quartet) because of the second movement theme, Haydn's own Emperor's Hymn, written for the birthday of the Emperor Franz after the composer's return from his second visit to England, where God Save the King had impressed him.
The beginning of the quartet has a strongly contrapuntal element, making much of the dotted rhythm of an ascending scale first introduced by the second violin. This provides music of sufficient weight to sustain the famous theme of the following movement and its four variations. The first of these allows the melody to the second violin, with rapid embellishment above from the first violin. The second variation gives the theme to the cello and the third to the viola, while the fourth, in which the first violin has the melody, provides new twists of harmony. The Minuet and its A minor Trio provide a moment of relaxation before the C minor drama of the finale, with its rapid triplet rhythm, leading to a final conclusive return to C major.