Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Joseph Haydn: Six String Quartets, Op. 76

Wax sculpture of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) by Franz Thaler, circa 1800
Wax sculpture of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) by Franz Thaler, circa 1800

Haydn’s six string quartets published in 1799 as Opus 76 are his supreme works of chamber music, works that show him at the very peak of his craft and imagination. The quartets were composed between 1796-1797, soon after Haydn’s return from his second residency in London. Haydn dedicated the set to his patron, the Hungarian nobleman Count Joseph Georg von Erdődy (1754-1824).

The famed English music historian Dr. Charles Burney (1726-1814) first heard Haydn’s Opus 76 string quartets in 1799, and he could not contain himself when he wrote that:

“They are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new effects, and seem the production, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well recently, but one of the highly cultivated talents, who has expended none of his fire before.”

(“Expended none of his fire before”? Okay; whatever.) 

Haydn’s Op. 76 string quartets are, indeed, brilliant; works that were – as we will soon observe – powerfully inspired by the late quartets of Haydn’s beloved and recently departed friend, Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791).

Mozart’s own string quartets aside, it is Joseph Haydn who, through the example of his 68 string quartets, is rightly credited with establishing the genre as it has been understood since the 1780s (an “understanding” described below).

(For our information, once upon a time, it was believed that Haydn had composed 83 string quartets.  However, modern scholarship has proven that 15 of those quartets are arrangements of other works or were not composed by Haydn at all.)

The String Quartet: A Brief (but spirited!) History

A “string quartet” is, in fact, two separate things: an instrumental ensemble and a compositional genre written for that ensemble. 

Portrait of Haydn by Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted in 1791, based on an earlier portrait depicting Haydn circa 1770
Portrait of Haydn by Ludwig Guttenbrunn, painted in 1791, based on an earlier portrait depicting Haydn circa 1770

The instrumental ensemble consists of two violins – referred to as the first violin and the second violin – a viola, and a cello.  These four instruments represent, respectively, the soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices of the ensemble.  

The compositional genre of string quartet, as we understand it today, consists of four distinct instrumental voices, with each voice being a fully empowered musical individual.  More than any other composer, it was Joseph Haydn who forged this modern notion of the string quartet as four individuals who collaborate to create a musical whole far greater than its parts.  

The string quartet remains the most important genre of chamber music from the 1750s to the present day.  No other specific grouping of instruments has shown such longevity.  But even more important, no other ensemble of instruments has been lavished with such an astonishing repertoire.

The immediate ancestor of the Classical era string quartet was the Baroque era trio sonata.  Despite the designation as being a “trio,” a “trio sonata” is in fact  a composition for four instruments. (Yes, they could count during the Baroque era; it was, after all, the era of Leibniz, Galileo, and Newton. Just work with it.)  A trio sonata is a chamber composition for two soprano instruments, one bass instrument, and the ubiquitous (during the Baroque era) harmony-playing instrument, usually a harpsichord.  The most typical instrumentation for a trio sonata – your garden variety, a-dime-a-dozen, flip-over-a-rock-and-find-a-trio-sonata instrumentation – is two violins, ‘cello, and a harpsichord.  

Attractive though this music is, it would not have been considered expressively or compositionally relevant by young Italian composers during 1730s and 1740s.  Such pre-classical, so-called “Rococo” composers as Giovanni Sammartini (1701-1775), Niccolo Jomemelli (1714-1774), and Baldassare Galuppi (1706-1785), sought to create a more lyric and less “complicated” sort of music, musical capable of pleasing almost any listener on its first hearing. To that end, these Italian composers – who were the de facto inventors of the string quartet – took the trio sonata and replaced its continuo (harpsichord) part with a viola, an instrument capable of providing a supple, entirely melodic inner voice while blending seamlessly with the other strings.

Such early Italian string quartets placed an overwhelming emphasis on the first violin part, while the second violin, viola, and cello parts are almost always strictly accompanimental.  Lacking – as they do – any sort of interplay between the voices, we do not today consider these early Italian “quartets for strings” to be true “string quartets.

What we do consider, today, to be the “true string quartet” developed in southern Germany and Austria during the 1750s and 1760s.  It was there that the new, lyric, pre-Classical Italian style merged with the German predilection for formal organization and more independent part writing.  

Joseph Haydn was at the very forefront of this development.…

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