"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."In the 18th century, compositions were often written and published in groups of six or twelve. The String Quartets, op 20 of Joseph Haydn are of considerable importance, as Tovey says. These were not the first string quartets ever written, even by Haydn, but what he achieved with these pieces set up the string quartet as possibly the most important genre of instrumental music, one that was later chosen for their most profound thoughts by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bartok and Shostakovich. Even more important, it was with these pieces that Haydn laid out the general principles of the Classical style and forms. It would be hard to overstate how important that was for music history!
But what interests me is what Haydn did, exactly, and how he did it. You might start by looking at the Wikipedia article on op 20, which is particularly comprehensive. I'm going to pick the D major Quartet for a couple of reasons and go through it. Here is the first movement:
This charming music is also a lesson in composition and creativity. Start with some very simple themes:
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Those two ideas are really all Haydn needs to write an eight minute movement for string quartet. In fact, he often writes a movement with just one theme. What we have here is Haydn inventing sonata form from scratch. First theme: repeated notes laying out the meter, triple time, then rising an octave, ending on the fifth note of the scale. Themes don't come much simpler than that. But here is something odd: most music comes in four-bar segments. Two four-bar segments go together to make up an eight-bar phrase. This is so fundamental that we don't even think about it. But look what Haydn has done. This theme is six measures long, not four. It is really a four-bar phrase expanded to six. The first measure of repeated notes is like an introduction, then the phrase itself is just four notes: D, G, D and A. Nothing simpler. Ah, but there is one other bar inserted--the three notes of the 4th bar. The other odd thing is that this six-bar theme is heard three times. Then Haydn starts taking us into different harmonies. Finally, in measure 31, he introduces that second theme. The first theme was soft, this one is loud and in eighth-note triplets. That's really it. All the rest of the movement consists in taking apart, varying, these themes, running them through different harmonies and modifying them rhythmically. Each of the two parts of the movement is ended by detaching that little turn at the end of the first theme as I've shown in the third line of the example. Now go back and listen to the movement again. You see how amazingly fluid it is: everything is based on these two simple themes and what variations can be made of them.