WGBH has hosted many string quartets in its performance studio. Hear three of the best, playing music by Joseph Haydn.
Haydn: Quartet Op. 76, No. 5
Haydn: Quartet Op. 77, No. 1
Haydn: Quartet Op. 20, No. 4
Joseph Haydn is often credited as the father of the symphony and the string quartet. He died 200 years ago on May 31.
Two hundred years ago — May 31, 1809, to be exact — Joseph Haydn died at age 76. Haydn lived a good long life that spanned many musical changes, a few of which he forged himself. When he started out, as an 8-year-old choir boy in Vienna, baroque music was still evolving. By the time he died, Haydn's own late-career compositions were pushing beyond the classical period, which he epitomized, and into the romantic era.
Haydn was 40 when he wrote his first important string quartets, a set of six grouped as Op. 20. At the time, he was supervising the musical life at Prince Nicholas Esterhazy's gilded palace southeast of Vienna. Everything he composed there — symphonies, operas, oratorios and chamber music — bore his trademark wit, invention and surprise. But a major part of the musical revolution that Haydn unleashed came through his devotion to the string quartet.
Haydn changed the course of history by rejecting the notion of the courtly "galante" style and its hyper-civilized predictability, and allowing the quartet to speak with all four of its expressive voices. At the time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was philosophizing about the freedom of the individual and the lessons to be found in nature, and Haydn, as if following suit, set music on a direct course toward romanticism. Phrases lost their symmetry, adagios were marked "affettuoso" ("passionate") to reinforce their heartbreaking tenderness and warmth, "minuets" became undanceable adventures and final movements sparkled with four-voice textures that hearkened back to the fierce integrity of Bach's time.
The importance of the Op. 20 quartets in history has been written about time and time again. Beethoven studied them before he dared to begin his own first set of quartets; he even made a string-orchestra version of the first one. Brahms studied them carefully, too. In fact, he was the owner of the original, autographed manuscript.
At WGBH, we have taken gleeful advantage of the fact that Boston has become a magnet for string quartets — not only the famous, seasoned ensembles, but also younger players who are drawn to the Professional String Quartet Training Program at the New England Conservatory. I've had the pleasure of hearing many of them play Haydn's quartets in our studio.
Jupiter String Quartet
The Jupiter Quartet's members examplify the success of that NEC program. While they have just the kind of fantastic precision and joie de vivre that must have been running through Haydn's mind all the time, I was really struck by the way they brought out the melancholy of the slow movement in Op. 20 No. 4 by finding an arresting kind of hushed intensity. Unburdened and direct, but so sad. They understood the poignancy of Haydn's gentle, shadowy wanderings from minor to major, and the effectiveness of understating the contrasts.
Borromeo String Quartet
The members of the Borromeo Quartet are dedicated, in a passionate and creative way, to engaging their audiences. They devote themselves to new music and old music, always anxious to open doors to deeper experiences.
Haydn really suits the Borromeo Quartet. While it's true that watching music being made is often a distraction, the Borromeos make it thoroughly compelling in a musical way, as if they were offering you a living blueprint of the score. Haydn was in his mid-60s when he wrote his String Quartet Op. 76 No. 5. The nickname "Largo" has stuck because of its extraordinarily touching slow movement. "Largo" is a tempo marking that calls for a large and spacious pulse. Haydn also asks that it be "cantabile e mesto" — songful and sad. The Borromeos gave this slow movement a simplicity and honesty that makes it heartbreakingly beautiful.
Hugo Wolf Quartet
Music has a remarkable capacity for uniting ideas that would seem impossible to meld, and Haydn and Beethoven were both exquisitely adept at marrying opposing thoughts. As Haydn was approaching 70, his music was shot through with contrasts and juxtapositions. The Quartet Op. 77 No. 1 is one of the last quartets he would finish. As I sat in our Fraser Performance Studio with the Hugo Wolf Quartet, receiving the charged energy that came from Haydn's aging heart, I kept thinking of the 30-year-old Beethoven, taking up the torch and starting in on his first quartets. The Hugo Wolf Quartet thought carefully about the meaning and length of Haydn's silences and his careful tempo markings, working hard to keep the energy packed with dialogue.