Josef Haydn (1732-1809) String Quartet Op. 20 No. 2 in C (1772)
Fuga a quattro soggetti: Allegro
Writing in four parts had been recognised both in theory and practice as the bedrock of string music long before the 1750s when Haydn started to compose string quartets. But four-part string music then had a variety of forms, none of which we would recognise as a ‘string quartet’ and was predominantly based on a basso continuo cello with optional keyboard, or was a light keyboard-less divertimento. The 18-year-old Haydn got into writing for a quartet of strings thanks to one Baron Fürnberg, who asked him to write something to be played at his place at Weinzierl in the Wachau valley. The four musicians were the local pastor, his estate manager, Haydn and the cellist brother of the Johann Albrechtsberger who later taught Beethoven composition. The resulting Op 1 & 2 quartets were still, both in name and form, divertimenti.
For the next 10 years Haydn wrote no quartets, his energies went into composing for and conducting Prince Nicholas Esterházy’s weekly orchestral concerts, and in composing scores and scores of trios for the prince’s baryton (a sort of viola da gamba) with viola and cello. But then, in the five years running up to his 40th birthday, in an extraordinary burst of creativity, Haydn invented the string quartet. His baryton trio experience had no doubt given him facility in small ensemble part-writing. He could therefore express new musical ideas in structures that gave equal contrapuntal weight to the four parts. In those five years he wrote three sets of six quartets, Op 9, Op 17 and the crucial Op 20. Op 9 are still in name divertimenti, but the form has changed, dropping the second Minuet to give just four movements and expanding the previously lightweight finale with contrapuntal substance. In Op 17 the movements become more thematically united, and the cello enjoys increased freedom. Finally, in Op 20, the cello is fully liberated, and Haydn has found the form for six distinctive masterpieces.
The newly liberated cello opens the C major quartet singing above both the viola’s base line and the second violin’s close harmony. At the start of the development, the second violin and viola drive a relentless accompaniment while the first violin and cello lead each other astray into remote keys with a motif derived from the opening bar. Then even the viola gets to soar, cello-like with the opening theme. Four truly equal partners.
The equality of the partners is also apparent in the opening of the darkly intense Adagio: four bars of unison followed by the cello restating the theme to the accompaniment of the upper strings. Although the first violin subsequently gets most of the decorative passagework, it is frequently joined by the three others to give a rich texture. The viola is given a complex triplet semiquaver accompaniment to the first violin’s soaring cantabile second theme, then the second violin takes the theme while the first takes over the triplet accompaniment.
The Minuet contrasts the drone of a syncopated and then chromatically drooping bagpipe with the call of a chirpy bird, while in the Trio the cello (again) sings out a theme derived from the droop.
The last movement is a contrapuntal tour de force: a four-part fugue with four themes, played sotto voce until a forte outburst shortly before the end. Just over half-way through Haydn writes al rovescio as he inverts the fugal subject. In the autograph edition at the forte outburst, Haydn wrote “Laus. Omnip. Deo. Sic fugit amicus amicum” (Praise the Lord.
Thus one friend flees another friend). Haydn has clearly established his contrapuntal credentials with both this fugue and the last-movement fugues of two other of the Op 20 quartets. But he only writes one more in all of his subsequent 40 or so quartets – his contrapuntal technique is now firmly integrated into his quartet writing.
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) String Quartet in E minor Op 83 (1918)
Piacevole (poco andante)
By 1917 Elgar’s creativity as a composer appeared to be winding down: as Diana McVeagh says in Grove’s Dictionary “oversimplifying, it could be said he turned towards either propaganda or fantasy”. Indeed, after his wife Alice’s death in 1920 he composed very little of substance. But, surprisingly, between 1917 and 1919 he produced four instrumental works which are still hugely popular: the Violin Sonata and String Quartet in 1918, and the Piano Quintet and Cello Concerto in 1918-19. All four were largely composed while the Elgars rented Brinkwells in Fittleworth. Their neighbour Ford Maddox Ford had proposed the move from London in response to Elgar’s poor health, which indeed improved. In these works, as if accepting his own unresponsiveness to the new directions that contemporary music had taken, Elgar reverts to the instrumental music of his youth, but composed with a life-time’s experience.
The String Quartet of 1918 is the only one by Elgar to survive – an early work of 1887 was destroyed. It followed a request made around 1900 by the cellist of the Brodksy Quartet (the second of the quartets founded by violinist Adolph Brodsky), to whom the piece was dedicated. Elgar had started on a String Quartet in 1907 but it was abandoned to the First Symphony which incorporated some of its ideas. Early in 1917, while recovering from a tonsillectomy, he embarked on a new quartet which was completed only after further interruptions from the Violin Sonata and Piano Quintet.
The string quartet shares the key of E minor with both the Violin Sonata and the Cello Concerto, a key associated by Ernst Pauer in his 1876 treatise on “The elements of the beautiful in music” with “grief, mournfulness, and restlessness of spirit (p.24)”.
Restlessness is certainly there in the opening figure‘s rhythmic uncertainty (illustrated), duplet opposing triplet. The tension relaxes with a new espressivo, purely triplety version of the opening (illustrated).
The Piacevole (Agreeable) middle movement was described by Lady Elgar as ‘captured sunshine’. The second violin gets to release the first sunbeams (illustrated). Lady Elgar also wrote that the finale is ‘most fiery & sweeps along like Galloping of Squadrons’. The second movement was played at her funeral in 1920.
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) Piano Quintet Op.34 in F minor (1864)
Allegro non troppo
Andante, un poco Adagio
Finale: Poco sostenuto—Allegro non troppo
Brahms’ only piano quintet has an interesting history. The year 1861 was the start of Brahms’ ‘first maturity’ in chamber music; he produced his first string sextet (Op 18) and his first two piano quartets (Op 25 and 26). The next year, following Schubert whom he deeply admired, he wrote a quintet for two violins, viola and two cellos. His close friends, pianist and composer Clara Schumann and violinist Joseph Joachim, were asked for their comments. They were concerned about the choice of instruments. After a private performance, Brahms, discouraged, rewrote the quintet as a sonata for two pianos (rather than the one-piano 4-hand arrangements that he habitually made) and, as with much of his early chamber music, destroyed the original. The 2-piano version was successfully performed in a number of concerts, but Clara and her fellow pianist Hermann Levi suggested alternative scorings to Brahms, who decided on a piano quintet, which he finished in October 1864. The 2-piano version was published 6 years after the piano quintet as Op 34bis. There have been a number of creative reconstructions of the destroyed 2-cello original (recently by Anssi Karttunen, the Finnish cellist, and also by Antony Gray, the Australian pianist), but the piano quintet version remains the most frequently performed. As you listen to the work you might like to wonder how it might have sounded with an extra cello and no piano.
The first movement illustrates Brahms’ ability to make simple materials change and grow. Ivor Keys in his BBC Music Guide Brahms Chamber Music shows how the first bars lay out the material with which Brahms will work. The pregnant pause in bar 4 (illustrated) is followed by an outburst of energetic semiquavers (illustrated), which take their shape from the notes under  and , together with a falling semitone assertion by the violins (which will figure prominently in the Scherzo). The semiquavers become the accompaniment and the falling semitone seeds a new theme, which the viola then adopts in a changed form. And so on. In Keys’ words “no extended instrumental composition can ever be convincing if it doesn’t possess the coherence that comes from integrity.”
The slow movement is altogether more straight-forward: generally four bar phrases, simply harmonised forming an ABA structure. The opening mood is gentle, like the Romanza of Brahms’ later first string quartet. The middle section brightens from A♭ into a bell-like E major and leads back to a more lusciously scored reprise of the first part.
The Scherzo is a different beast altogether. The ominous mood set by the pizzicato beat on the cello and the threatening dotted rhythm in the strings are abruptly dispelled by a triumphant march. These moods abruptly alternate with the dotted rhythm which is transformed into the manic ‘hammer and tongs’ passage (illustrated) – we really do need the piano for this bit! On its reprise a sinister downward D♭-C semitone is incessantly hammered out. This falling semitone is reminiscent not only of the first movement, but also of the end of Schubert’s 2-cello quintet. All this breathless drama is contrasted with the most optimistic of Trios.
The falling semitone at the end of the Scherzo metamorphoses into a rising one in the searching, slow introduction to the Finale. The contrasting episodes of the Finale itself appear to be searching for cohesion, so that when the brakes are at last released on a coda of unusually sustained energy, the audience is swept along to an ending that is designed to bring the house down and them to their feet.