Sunday, 13 March 2011

Haydn did it first!

"Up until Bartok, there was nothing in string quartet writing that Beethoven didn't do first." Heard that before? Truly, almost every compositional technique, every structural innovation that you see in the quartets of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, even Ravel, has its antecedents in Beethoven's quartets.

But much of that original exploration of the medium was not Beethoven's. A lot of the things that amaze us in the middle and late quartets were invented by that greatest of innovators, Papa Haydn. Here are some of them:

The heartbeat

In the Grosse Fuge, Beethoven writes, instead of quarter notes, two eighth notes tied together:

(The Grosse Fuge, played by the Harlow quartet)

Performers have for years puzzled over this notation. What does Beethoven mean? does he want a quarter note or not? The Alban Berg quartet plays these like quarternotes, with a slight accent on the beginning of the note:

(Alban Berg quartet)

The Emerson quartet plays these like two eighth notes:

(Emerson quartet)

The Takacs quartet plays them somewhere in between; you can hear the difference in quality, but there is no real distinction:

(Takacs quartet)

But Beethoven did not invent this idea. Here are the tied eighth notes, same thing, in Haydn's Quinten quartet, Opus 76 number 2:

And here it is again, later in the same movement - not quarter notes, but dotted quarters, written as an eighth and a quarter, with very much the same halting feeling that Beethoven creates in the opening of his fugue:

Here, too, performers face the same dilemma: play them as quarter notes, like the Cleveland quartet

(Cleveland quartet)

or like two eighth notes, like the Mosaiques:

(Mosaiques quartet)

What key is it in?

Here is the opening of Beethoven's opus 59 number 2:

(Quan Yuan, Jennifer Wey, Matthew Davies, David Meyer)

What key is it in? Beethoven leads us through a labyrinth of loosely related chords connected by a series of suspensions, keeping us in a state of suspended imbalance until he breaks out in his assertively C major theme. That opening is almost atonal.

But that same sense of tonal ambiguity appears in Haydn's string quartet opus 33 number 1:

(Delian quartet)

It sounds like D major - no, that dissonant major seventh means - what? B minor? No, it's wandering about going to... There's B minor again, no, it's E minor, no, it's ... And then the assertive D major theme.

Same ambiguity, same sense of wandering about, searching for a light in the darkness, and then, a step out of the cave into the sunlight. Remember, Haydn did it first.

(Of course, Haydn isn't the only precedent for this idea. Consider the opening of Mozart's Dissonant quartet, K. 465.)

Schoenberg is usually credited with writing the first atonal piece. The last movement of his second string quartet is written without a key signature, and, indeed, there is no tonal center to that movement. But Schoenberg was not the first. The Fantasia movement of Haydn's quartet Opus 76 number 6 has no key signature in the first half. The beginning is in B major, but it then modulates through a series of unrelated keys - E major, G major, B flat major, B minor, A flat major, finally settling back to B major. The entire first half of the movement has a sense of meandering through a forest of keys, with no single sense of tonality. Schoenberg, 150 years early.

(This is turning into a long post. So I will stop here, and continue in a later post)


  1. Don't forget that it's the Opus 33 Quartets that prompted Mozart to write his "Haydn" Quartets (K465 is the sixth of that set).

  2. I haven't forgotten. In fact, I am stewing about an article on that. What exactly did Haydn mean when he said that the op 33 were composed in a "new and original manner"?

  3. This is excellent. No musicologist could have said it better. Thanks.

  4. Was just checking back through my comments and found your blog. Your set of scores, You Tube examples, and comments were absolutely fascinating!