Haydn with Strings attached

An overview of Josef Haydn’s String Quartets

New Zealand String Quartet

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University of Wellington

Tuesday 25th August, 2009

“Music begins where words leave off” as the old saying goes, suggesting that the two media are sometimes best left to their own devices, and that their combination needs to be handled with surety and skill. However, by using both spoken words and music (more easefully as the evening progressed) the New Zealand String Quartet managed in their presentation “Josef Haydn and the String Quartet” to bring the composer to life as the author of one of the most life-enhancing creative endeavours to grace the civilised world. Had there been any complete CD sets of the quartets for sale at the door afterwards, I would have compulsively bartered what resources I could have mustered, in order to leave with one, as a result of the NZSQ’s advocacy.

Haydn began composing String Quartets with his Op.1 set in the late 1750s, and for the best part of the next fifty years continued to produce an unsurpassed body of work in the genre. His efforts concluded with his final, unfinished quartet in 1803, intended to be the third of a set of six, but whose completion at that stage of his life was beyond his powers. The quartet members patiently and skilfully delineated this progression by the composer through various stages of his career with precise biographical information, anecdotes and quotes in tandem with quartet movements used as musical “signposts”. The players’ spoken delivery soon lost a certain “stiffness” at the outset, as they warmed to the ambience of both the auditorium and the audience, their story-telling and detailing in words and music exerting an ever-increasing fascination throughout the evening.

There was so much to take in thoughout – from the incidental anecdotes relating to specific movements (the “fleeing from a whipping” aspect of the Presto of Op.1 No.3, and the interaction with fellow-composer and performer Dittersdorf at a beer-hall where a scherzo of Haydn’s is being played – Op.33 No.5 – to the latter’s mock-dismay), the composer’s sense of humour (righteous indignation from historian Charles Burney at Haydn’s flouting the rules of composition in works like the finale of “The Joke” Quartet Op.33 No.2, and Haydn’s own attitude to these rules, writing “con licenza” over the Allegro of Op.55 No.2, with its catchy dotted rhythm and closely-worked contrapuntal development set against unexpected rhythmic irregularities), as well as general observations such as regarding the composer’s religious beliefs (the beautiful hymn-like Affetuoso of Op.20 No.1).

All of these musical realisations the NZSQ took in its stride; and while not all detailing was perfect, the playing was consistently characterful and engaging. We were able to feel the composer’s discomfiture in his unhappy marriage by dint of the almost Straussian solo violin part in the Adagio of  Op.54 No.2, which combines recitative and lyricism in a startlingly candid way; and at the other end of the human interaction scale we felt the warmth of the regard between Haydn and Mozart, characterised by the Presto finale of  Op.55 No.3. There was, too, the liberation of the composer from Esterházy, and an encounter in London with Sir William Herschel, the astronomer, and Haydn’s scientific initiation into the vastness of the cosmos, and the resulting awe of creation, expressed in the adagio of Op.71 No.2. Towards the end we heard the Andante grazioso from the composer’s final unfinished quartet, and then the bizarre post-mortem odyssey of Haydn’s head, a black-humoured tale suitably capped with the high-jinks of another marvellous movement from the composer’s oeuvre, the Presto from Op.76 No.5.

This was great work from the New Zealand String Quartet – a well-rounded and affectionate salute to a composer whose work, despite its popularity, seems inexhaustible in what it brings to us for our continued pleasure.

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