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The heights of Joseph Haydn
December 2017 / January 2018


Among these exceptional 45 quartets, the Op 20 set of six, composed in 1772, is a phenomenon, for the full appreciation of which it is necessary to understand the special nature of Haydn’s musical evolution. Although Bruckner and Janáček were also late developers, Haydn’s case is more extreme. If he had died in 1767 aged 35, at or beyond the age to which Mozart and Schubert lived, he would have been recalled as a minor 18th-century composer only, scarcely more distinguished (as Richard Wigmore points out) than his gifted but unambitious younger brother Michael. Over the next few years, something happened within his creative spirit, first with the so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies written in this period, and then — most extraordinarily — in the realm of the string quartet. The tendency to look for emotional or biographical causes should be resisted, not least because we find it difficult to conceive of the composer as artist other than through the prism of the Romantic movement, and its idolisation of Beethoven in particular. Nonetheless, reasons there were, albeit they are probably to be found in the cultural and intellectual climate of the time — the significant developments in German thought and poetics effected by Goethe and Schiller, together with the culmination in Rousseau of a radical stream of thought which can in retrospect be seen as a precursor of the Romantic movement. Haydn was in no sense part of this movement, but his Op 20 finds him in liberated mood, exercising new powers of self-expression and disinhibition, alternately exploiting and undermining the already-established rules of classical composition.

The enormous leap forward made by Beethoven in his “Eroica” Symphony is well-known; Mozart’s piano concerto K271 is a similar, if obscurer case. It is time for Haydn’s Op 20, inconspicuous as it may be, to be recognised as outstripping even the advances cited. It is no exaggeration to see it as one of the most important events in the history of classical music. Indeed it may be said to have definitively launched the classical style, and represented a decisive departure from the superficialities of the galante idiom prevalent in the mid-18th century. Keller refers to it as a “sudden, late and sustained explosion of genius”; while Tovey says that:

Every page of the six quartets of Op 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance; there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much or achieved it so quietly . . . Further progress [in the subsequent 38 quartets] is not progress in any historical sense, but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.

There are numerous features of the Op 20 set which are special and new, many of which directly foreshadow the quartets of Beethoven. There are structural innovations within movements, including radical alterations to the basic sonata form scheme (of exposition, development, recapitulation, coda); there is a marked prominence given (for the first time in any sustained way) to the cello; there is a greater range of expression; there is a profusion of metric tricks and asymmetries; there is a constant delight in defeating the expectations of the listener, as with false recapitulations and unexpected quiet endings.
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