Sunday, October 30, 2011

Haydn Quartets, Part 2

The previous post was a brief introduction to the first movement of the Quartet in D major, from op 20. Now let's look at the slow movement. The logical thing to do for a second movement in a piece in major, is to move to the minor and a slow tempo. This is just what Haydn does:

This seems like a good place to mention some things about multi-movement pieces. The sonata in more than one movement was a development that took place during three periods in music history: the Baroque, the Classical and the Romantic. It is the most important form in instrumental music because sonatas for keyboard, chamber music ensembles with continuo, string quartets and even symphonies and concertos all share the basic structure. A piece for string quartet is called a "string quartet", but it is really a sonata for four string instruments as opposed to a sonata for piano solo. The fairly lengthy second movement is a set of variations in D minor. Here is the first half of the theme:

Click to enlarge

This uses simple harmonies with some graceful decorations and moves from D minor to F major; the second half moves back to D minor. There are four variations and a coda. Haydn gives nearly equal time to all the instruments: the second variation is a solo for the cello. It took me a long time to appreciate sets of variations even though they are a popular medium for guitar because they normally don't modulate as much as other kinds of structures. But most sets of variations are a bit, uh, uninspired. It is too easy to fall into a formula. True, it is an interesting exercise for composers because there is the challenge of finding something new but staying within a defined structure. I also suspect that audiences often like variations because there is a lot of repetition and the possibility of some virtuosity as well. But I have come to appreciate those few sets of variations that really are transcendent such as the Goldberg variations by Bach and the Diabelli variations by Beethoven. What Haydn is doing here is laying the groundwork for Beethoven and giving us a lovely piece of music in the process. He is exploring the possibilities of using the kind of complex figuration that the Baroque was so good at, to decorate the clear harmonic structures that are typical of the Classical period. This is exactly the combination that Beethoven took up and pretty much exhausted in movements like the Adagio from the String Quartet in E flat major, op 127. But Haydn led the way...

No comments: