Program note: Bronfman Quartet Plays Brahms and Haydn

Thursday, August 11, 2022 , 6:30 PM

Haydn: Quartet for Strings in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, Hob. III:76, “Fifths”

Brahms: Quartet for Strings in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

Quartet for Strings in D Minor, Op. 76, No. 2, Hob. III:76, “Fifths”

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809)

Composed: 1797
Length: c. 20 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, and cello

With the death of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy in September 1790, the thriving musical community at his estate was to be disbanded. Having spent 30 years in service of the Esterházy family, Haydn eagerly took the opportunity to explore the greater musical world, one in which he was already recognized as a master composer. Within three months of the Prince’s death, Haydn was en route to London, where he was met with overwhelming public support. He would spend over a year in England and then would return for another extended stay in 1794 to 1795. The period was one of joy and remarkable productivity for Haydn during which he completed a dozen string quartets and another dozen symphonies, among other works.

By the end of his second journey to London, Haydn was a worldwide celebrity and in high demand as a freelance composer. In 1796, Count Joseph Erdödy, an
Esterházy relation, commissioned the set of six string quartets that compose Haydn’s Op. 76. This is the final, full set of string quartets that Haydn would compose (he produced nearly 70 total), and is regarded today as one of the pinnacle achievements in the genre. The second of these, on tonight’s program, is exceptional: it combines a stormy intensity (it is the only minor key quartet of the set) with Haydn’s signature elegance, creativity, and musical wit.

What to listen for

  • First movement: the nickname given to this quartet is “Fifths,” in reference to the opening of the first movement, which has the first violin emphatically play four notes that form a pair of wide, descending intervals called perfect fifths. This motive in various forms recurs nearly constantly throughout the movement—see how many you can catch!
  • Second movement: while we often think of string quartets as egalitarian affairs, in this movement, focus your attention on the first violin, which assumes the spotlight nearly throughout this elegant Andante.
  • Third movement: listen for the unusual structure of the Minuet: the two violins play a melody in octaves that is answered with the same melody played in octaves by the viola and cello, forming a musical canon (or round).
  • Fourth movement: the Hungarian-tinged main melody has a very quirky little tag to it—as the melody ends, the first violin decides to interject a high harmonic. The other players are momentarily flummoxed by this unexpected turn, but with a wink, the first violin dives back in as if it never happened.

Quartet for Strings in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Composed: 1873
Length: c. 34 minutes

Instrumentation: 2 violins, viola, and cello

Haydn’s mastery over the string quartet genre was handed down to the next generation of composers, most significantly to his pupil Beethoven, who completed 16 string quartets that are now the cornerstones of the literature. After Beethoven died, and early in his career, Brahms was considered to be the heir apparent to the tradition handed down by this musical giant. It was a burden that Brahms was reluctant to bear, as he wrote: “You do not know what it is like hearing his footsteps constantly behind me.” Other than the symphony, the string quartet was the genre most closely associated with Beethoven, and Brahms delayed his first effort in the form, choosing instead to compose a sextet as his initial foray into the chamber medium without piano. By the time he completed his first two string quartets—forming the Op. 51 set, the second of which we hear this evening—the 40-year-old Brahms was already a well-established presence in Vienna.

It wasn’t that Brahms hadn’t tried before this. Relentlessly self-critical, Brahms had begun at least 20 string quartets prior to the summer of 1873, when the Op. 51 pair finally cleared his own high artistic bar. He had literally wallpapered his room in Hamburg with musical sketches that he would eventually reject and destroy, writing, “I had only to lie on my back to admire my sonatas and quartets!” Historians have tried to determine how early Brahms may have begun the Op. 51 works, but because he burned his Hamburg sketches, the detective work is tricky. It is likely that ideas for the A minor quartet were sketched in the late 1860s, intriguingly right around the time that his friend Joseph Joachim gave him a pocket edition of Haydn’s string quartets. However, the bulk of the work was done during the summer of 1873 while Brahms was on an extended stay along a lake in Bavaria. With characteristic absurdity, Brahms’s note to his publisher accompanying the Op. 51 scores calls the pieces “small and pitiful.” In truth, they are carefully constructed gems, rich in material and emotive effect.

What to listen for

  • First movement: like the Haydn, the first theme of the Brahms quartet uses four emphatic notes in the first violin, projecting unusually wide melodic intervals (instead of fifths, Brahms uses a rising sixth followed by a falling fourth).
  • Second movement: in the agitated middle section of this movement, Brahms writes a canon, or round, between first violin and cello, here with a fifth between melodic lines in contrast with the octave-based canon that Haydn used in his third movement.
  • Third movement: Brahms calls this a “quasi-minuet.” To see why, try counting the traditional “1-2-3” minuet beat structure in the beginning—off-beat accents make this tricky!
  • Fourth movement: the rhythmic illusions continue as the finale begins, with the energetic Hungarian-inspired melody (again, like Haydn!) played in two against an accompaniment in three.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi