Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Haydn: no joking matter

This summer I attended the Raphael Trio chamber music workshop in New Hampshire. There was a coach there, Regina, from Austria. I was smitten with her, and was considering falling in love with her. But then, at one of the afternoon sessions, where the coaches sit together and read chamber music, she played Haydn's "Joke" quartet, opus 33 number 2. My burgeoning passion for her was destroyed at that moment. Because, Regina, you didn't get the joke.

Regina is not alone in this. Most people think the joke in Haydn's Joke quartet is all in the last few bars of the last movement, where he plays this clever trick, making you think the quartet is finished, and then going on.

But that is only the punchline of the last smidgeon of joke. The truth is that the entire quartet is a huge joke, from the opening bars to the end. So, at the risk of ruining a good joke, I am going to explain this quartet. Regina, pay attention!

Here are the opening bars of the quartet:

Right from the getgo, we know where we are: This is a drinking song, and we are in a bar. Banging our mugs on the table, stomping our feet, and singing. Don't believe me? Here, listen again:

Now, when you're sitting in a bar drinking, things are pretty mercurial. Ideas, moods, snatches of tunes pop up and disappear just as fast as they come. Charles Rosen, in The Classical Style, notes that Haydn's movements, as opposed to the emotionally uniform movements of the Baroque, are characterized by changing moods - "a series of articulated [dramatic] events". But in this movement, this idea is taken beyond the extreme. Moods change two or three times within a single phrase, and sometimes within a single bar. Consider:

After the drinking theme, questioning:

Then, shyness, sudden bravura, evaporating into bashful flirtation:

and a sudden burst of brilliance!

In the development, romantic ...

But then, confused, then understanding, then confused again, suddenly angry!

and so on throughout the movement. This, says Haydn, is the way people act in a bar, after the second, the third, and the tenth pint - quixotic, flirtatious, inconsistent.

In the end, they get drunk. And once drunk, they try to dance. Here is the minuet (second movement) that they try to dance to:

A perfectly formed, eight-bar minuet.  But, drunk as they are, our dancers stumble in the middle of the phrase, and kind of wallow around, looking for their balance.

By the second strain of the minuet, our boys seem to have found their centers, and manage a rather delicate dance - for a couple of measures. But then, at the allemande, they lose their balance, nearly thunk to the floor, and wallow for another couple of measures before getting back in step.

By the trio, they have figured out how to keep standing up, by not stepping but kind of slithering across the floor.

This trio, incidentally, is, to my knowledge, the first use of glissando in published music. Since there was in those days no agreed symbol for glissando, Haydn fingered every note, thus indicating that the player is to slide with one finger from note to note. For heaven's sake, Regina, don't try to make this section pretty and dainty. It is drunken dancing. Here, listen to this brilliant reading of the first and second movements by the Casals quartet, in their entirety. Thank you, Casals quartet, for a wonderful performance.

What comes after drinking and drunken dancing? Sleep of course. Our carousers weave their ways to bed.

Note the wobbles in the cello. Sleep though he may, he is still unsteady.

Haydn's drunken sleep is not an ordinary, peaceful repose. It is interrupted by sudden snorts and growls...

Of course, Haydn is the consummate artist, and everything he writes is beautiful. But don't be seduced into playing this movement straight; it is as full of sly quirks as the preceding ones.

Which brings us to the last movement, the movement that everyone agrees (finally) contains a joke. But the surprise ending - or non-ending - is not the only joke in this movement. The main subject of the rondo is the real joke. This subject is so trivial, so superficial, as to be comical.

If it weren't for the masterful way that Haydn handles it, we would guess that this was a subject written by Vanhal, Richter, Holzbauer, or some other justly forgotten composer. This totally silly subject gets dressed up in mock seriousness.

And more mock seriousness.

And then deathly earnest.

And then the punchline. Here is the Casals quartet playing the entirety of the last two movements. Enjoy.


  1. I think that "drinking" clip is an overdub atop the La Traviata movie with Domingo and Stratas!

    You neglected to mention one of the first viola jokes: the viola and cello duets in the slow movement. Who would have ever thought of daring to put a viola solo in a string quartet at that point? Only Haydn.

  2. You are right about the drinking clip - it is from Domingo's movie. Thank you for pointing that out.

    As for the viola solo: it is a joke, but it isn't the first viola solo in Haydn's quartets. There is the viola variation in the slow movement of opus 20 number 4, and a few other smaller solos.

  3. "I was smitten with her, and was considering falling in love with her." ??! Falling in love is not a thing to consider! The Casals Quartet performance is revealing: the kind of daring ensemble playing one hears sometimes in live performance, but not on recording where mere technical perfection is the goal. Your story-telling (drinking, dancing, uneasy sleep,...) makes a certain kind of sense... but for me the music stands on its own. It coheres and "explains" itself quite adequately on purely musical grounds, without need of a narrative. Cheers!

  4. "I was smitten with her, and was considering falling in love with her."
    "Falling in love is not a thing to consider"

    when writing about a joke...

  5. I like the "bar-scene" image for this quartet, but I feel it still has a "prim and proper" air to it, which would be appropriate for the patrons he was writing for. The allegro moderato calls to my mind a ballroom dance, but the humor is in the phrase extensions and the playful changes of mood that leave the dancers wondering what they're supposed to do.

  6. Most beautiful Article, Thanks for sharing!
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