Haydn, String Quartet in C major, Op. 20, No. 2

Joseph Haydn, 1732-1809

String Quartet in C major, Op. 20, No. 2, 1772

Haydn, Op. 20, No. 2According to a list Haydn compiled of those works he considered his “true” string quartets, Op. 20 was his third set of six quartets, preceded by Op. 17 and Op. 9. All three groups were composed between 1769 and 1772, a period of merely three years in which the pioneering Haydn produced eighteen quartets. This burst of creative effort might well be regarded as the most important in the history of the string quartet. Showing a steady progress through Op. 9 and Op. 17, Haydn realized the full bounty of his exploration with Op. 20, six masterpieces conceived as an integrated set immediately regarded as a towering achievement, the very first crucial landmark in the history of the string quartet. The cover of the first printed edition featured an illustration of the sun and they have been known as the “Sun” quartets ever since.

The musicologist Donald Tovey referenced this nearly prescient visual symbolism by writing that Op. 20 was “a sunrise over the domain of sonata style and quartets in particular.” Tovey continues with an astonishing assessment:

“Every page of the six quartets of Op. 20 is of historic and aesthetic importance; and though the total results still leave Haydn with a long road to travel, there is perhaps no single or sextuple opus in the history of instrumental music which has achieved so much or achieved it so quietly . . . With Op. 20 the historical development of Haydn’s quartets reaches its goal; and further progress is not progress in any historical sense, but simply the difference between one masterpiece and the next.”

The second quartet in C major is perhaps the finest of the set, a diamond among its fellow precious jewels. Musicologist William Drabkin calls this quartet alone “one of the supreme achievements of the Classical period.” Every movement, possibly every measure offers something to admire.

Throughout this quartet, the cello is finally emancipated from its humble role as a keeper of the base line to become a fully independent voice in a four-part texture. The cello sings the first theme of the opening movement in its higher register initiating a brief three-part fugato for a sonata exposition that is uniquely and strikingly contrapuntal. As if a signature of the quartet, the cello renews its featured role at least three times more: the first solo theme in the second movement, the lead in the minuet’s trio, and an equal voice in the elaborate fugal finale.

The quartet is powerfully dramatic. The development section within the opening movement is astonishingly transforms the bright elegance of the initial fugato into a dark, muscular adventure. Amidst the probing peregrinations, the main theme reappears in a minor key almost to the point of tragedy. But the slow, second movement continues to even greater depths of rhetorical power with a fantasia of singular design. A stark unison texture at the onset establishes a grave mood that gives way to a poignant cello lament and a series of recitatives and violent interruptions in a cloud of unresolved tension that is supremely unsettling. A brief stretch of lyrical relief is all the more precious for its transience, a respite doomed to subjugation. The only exit strategy is the third movement minuet that arrives, without pause, suddenly, to summarily dispel one of Haydn’s blackest moods.

The finale crowns this quartet with a miracle of magisterial counterpoint in a complex fugue featuring four separate themes inextricably interwoven. Three of the six quartets of Op. 20 present fugal finales in what seems to be an exercise of mounting complexity from two to three to four simultaneous subjects labeled as “soggetti”: short melodies designed to join in counterpoint. One hallmark of the Viennese classical style is a new musical texture blending the learned and the gallant, the art of counterpoint with the unburdened flow of accompanied melody. Haydn heralds this brilliant innovation most vividly here. First, he intensifies the learned dimension by inverting the main subject al rovescio – alternating the theme with itself played upside down. Then, with a marked change of dynamics from sotto voce to forte, he abandons the learned for the gallant in a shining explosion of unified homophony, in a sense, transforming the Baroque into the Classical in a single, “modern” stroke.

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