Friday, September 30, 2011

Mozart & Haydn: the Birth of a Musical Legacy

Since the Juilliard Quartet is playing one of Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets (that is, from a set of six quartets dedicated to his friend Haydn) at their 8:00 concert on Saturday evening at Whitaker Center, opening Market Square Concerts' 30th Anniversary Season, it would seem logical I should post a little [sic] something about it. Part of the problem writing anything in-depth about any one of these six string quartets is that you would need to get into detail not only about the other five quartets but also the six quartets Haydn published as Op. 33 which inspired Mozart to begin his own set. And since Haydn published his in 1781 and Mozart completed his in 1785, that’s covering four years of a very busy time in Mozart’s life (and times).

Merely mentioning the quartets, what keys and catalogue numbers they are and what year they were written doesn’t really tell you much about what was going on behind the music. But going into detail takes on the appearance of a doctoral dissertation and risks the comment, as I do some research and look over my notes, that – to quote Emperor Joseph II’s comment about Mozart's new opera, Abduction from the Seraglio – there are "too many notes.”

One of the problems is the unfamiliarity of Haydn’s inspiring collection and the fact that, for most of the repertoire we’re familiar with in string quartet programs, Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets are essentially the chronological starting point. While you might find the occasional earlier Haydn quartet, you rarely hear any of the quartets Mozart composed before 1781. Even though Haydn more or less “invented” the string quartet, still the most regularly programed are those from the late-1780s and ‘90s (Op. 50 to Op. 77, or #36 to #67) and of those, more likely the last dozen or so.

Like the symphonies, the typical concert-goer is still more familiar with only a few Haydn Symphonies outside the basic handful of “London” Symphonies just as one rarely hears more than a half-dozen of those Mozart wrote in the last decade of his life.

And it’s unlikely many concert-goers would know any of the first dozen or so quartets Mozart composed before the six “Dedicated to Haydn,” even the 1773 set of six written in Vienna when he was inspired by Haydn’s Op. 17 and Op. 20 sets.

So it’s a challenge for a modern listener – familiar with “Beethoven and Beyond” – who doesn’t know much about what the quartet had been like before in order to appreciate what it was Mozart accomplished in these six quartets.

Now, Haydn is generally known as the “Father of the Symphony” (the nickname “Papa” Haydn originates from a different perspective) but he also was very instrumental (pun intended) in the birth of the String Quartet.

He did not “invent” the symphony – it already existed as a form, evolving from the three-part opera overture called a sinfonia. But he may have had more to do with the “invention” of the string quartet.

During the Baroque era (especially from c.1700-1750), one of the most common musical combinations was called a “trio sonata” which included two melody instruments as a duet (more likely two violins but also possibly flutes or oboes or a combination of them) with “continuo.” For us, it’s confusing to think of a trio sonata being played by four people but “continuo” meant an instrument capable of playing chords (a keyboard instrument or a lute) with a lower register instrument like a cello or a bassoon that doubled the all-important bass line. This is a typical Baroque “sound.”

The texture of this “sound” is also significant. The melodic line was important, the two upper instruments often echoing or answering each other, sometimes one stepping into the background as the other moved into the foreground and vice-versa. The bass-line just plodded along, keeping the ear grounded in the harmony.

The harmonic portion of this “continuo,” however, was so insignificant composers didn’t bother writing it out. Performers were expected to improvise their part based on a series of coded numbers – numerical figures written under the bass-line (that’s why this theoretical detail is called ‘figured bass’) – that told him what notes were to be filled in to create the correct harmonies. Improvisation in this case didn’t mean completely winging it but, as in jazz, working within given parameters to create something out of virtually nothing more than a few provided guidelines.

In many (if not most) cases, pieces probably could be played without the keyboard part if the bass-line and the two melodic parts took into consideration proper harmonic voicing.

As Haydn later told his biographer, when he was 18 or so and a free-lance starving musician in Vienna freshly expelled from school and trying to make ends meet giving lessons, he got a paying gig with a Viennese baron who had a country estate about 50 miles outside the imperial capital. Considering the request for some music-making, the only musicians available were the baron’s pastor, his estate manager – both amateurs – and a friend of his, but no keyboard instrument. So, out of necessity, having to compose a work for four players - two violins and ‘cello without continuo - he realized he could fill in the missing harmonies by using a mid-range instrument, the viola.

And thus was born – generations of viola jokes aside – the string quartet.

Now, it’s true that Grigorio Allegri, most famous for his Miserere, had composed a piece for an ensemble of four strings before the mid-1600s. Alessandro Scarlatti had published a set of “Quartet Sonatas [as opposed to “Trio Sonatas”] for Two Violins, Viola and Cello without Keyboard” somewhere between 1715 and 1725, it was viewed as a “natural progression” from the idea of the Trio Sonata plus the occasional lack of a suitable continuo instrument like the harpsichord or organ.

But even Grove’s Dictionary says of Scarlatti’s instrumental music, “none of these shows him at his best.” Famous as a composer of over 60 operas and a great deal of church music, he is best known today as the father of Domenico Scarlatti. Since by 1686 he established the three-part form of the Italian opera overture which would later become the symphony, he should at least be remembered as the “Grandfather of the Symphony.”

So, why did Haydn become the “Father of the String Quartet”?

Because in 1750 he was probably unaware of Scarlatti’s little-known work and no one else, in the intervening decades, seemed to have followed Scarlatti's lead. Haydn’s early endeavors were successful enough to catch on. Though his first 28 quartets were originally called “Divertimenti,” his first published works were String Quartets in 1762. If the 1750-ish date for the “birth” of the String Quartet is accurate (and some musicologists doubt it), even so, Haydn didn’t compose his first symphony until 1759.

Now, the texture of this string quartet was also important to note: in Baroque music, even if 1750 is an arbitrary cut-off date made convenient by the death of J. S. Bach, though the Baroque Style was already out-of-fashion by then, the general texture of music was polyphonic – several voices (or instrumental parts) moving independently.

Here’s an example of typical Baroque polyphony, from Bach's 2nd Brandenburg Concerto. 

Contrast that with the opening of Haydn’s first published string quartet, written about 40 years later.

Unlike the Bach Brandenburg Concerto where four different soloists each have their turn in the spotlight and continue playing independently as equal parts of the whole – note the background role of the continuo plus the other members of those string players in what passed for “the orchestra” in those days – Haydn’s quartet is primarily a violinist supported by three other string players where the 1st violinist gets most of the work while the cello plays the harmonic bass (sometimes not even a smoothed-out melodic line but just the ‘table legs’ of the chord progression) while the “inner parts” – 2nd Violin and Viola – play other notes in the chord to fill out the necessary harmony. (Ever wonder where the term “playing second fiddle” came from?)

This texture is called “homophony” – unlike polyphony which means “many voices,” homophony implies a single melodic voice supported harmonically by accompanimental voices. For instance, in keyboard music, it would be a melody in the right hand with some accompanimental pattern in the left, like the opening of this famous Mozart piano sonata, beloved of beginners everywhere.

It is not the only solution to the question “what to do with four players,” but it is the most common one, in one form or another. If you listen to other movements from Haydn’s Op. 1 quartets, it is still the 1st Violinist’s show.

Now, compare that with one of Haydn’s later quartets, published in 1781, that inspired Mozart: this is the opening of the B Minor Quartet, Op.33 No. 1:

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

While the division of labor is still geared to the 1st Violinist, the others have more to do, their parts are a little more independent and the 1st Violinist isn’t always getting the spotlight. The other three parts are becoming both more independent and more interesting both to listen to and to play.

Enter Mozart. (Finally.)

When he was 23 years old, he heard two sets of Haydn quartets on a visit to Vienna in 1773. There hadn’t been much call for him to write string quartets as a musical employee of Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo, for whatever reasons. In fact, all of them, so far, had been written for other courts – his first while on tour in Italy in 1770 when he was 14, the next six for Milan during the winter of 1772-73. So these Haydn-inspired quartets of 1773 (K.168-K.173) show a considerable state of advancement over the earlier ones.

Part of that difference is what we might call “demographic targeting.” Mozart wrote the earlier set in Milan for an Italian audience whose attitude about ‘what good music should be’ required a more carefree, more melodious, generally more entertaining style. In Vienna, audiences would prefer something with a little more fiber to the texture (think more polyphony than homophony) and a somewhat more intellectual approach (though Germans in Leipzig, say, still thought Vienna was more empty-headed than light-hearted).

So when Mozart finally moved to Vienna on his own in the spring of 1781, having resigned his post with the Archbishop of Salzburg (and, yes, booted out the door by the archbishop’s chamberlain, probably Count Arco’s sole claim to fame). Not long after that, he begins work on a new opera – The Abduction from the Seraglio – the one Emperor Joseph II famously complained had “too many notes” when it was premiered in July the next year.

A month later, Mozart married Constanze Weber.

Another thing that happened to Mozart, aside from trying the life of a free-lancer with lessons and concerts, was discovering Haydn’s latest set of string quartets, the six of Op.33, known variously as the Russian Quartets because they were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul, son of the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, and Russia’s future if short-lived tsar.

Here is the opening of Haydn’s Op.33 No.3.

And though it might not sound that different to us – again, with everything that came after these works – there is a marked difference in the approach (overall) to the individual parts.

Compare that to the first of the six quartets Mozart began composing that next year: the G Major Quartet, K.387, was completed in December of 1782, four months after his wedding and their move into a newer and larger apartment. Here is the Hagen Quartet in a live concert recording – the performance actually begins at 1:20 into the clip.

Though the 1st Violinist still leads the ensemble, note that the other parts are a little more individualized and that the 2nd Violinist actually gets to state the second theme at 2:11!

Keep in mind, though we think of Mozart as a pianist, he was also a fine violinist and preferred playing viola in a string quartet – he said it was more interesting to hear everything going on around him rather than to be playing the lead. That, diplomatically or not, he left to his friend Haydn when they would gather for “quartet-playing parties” with Dittersdorf playing 2nd Violin and Vanhal playing ‘Cello, all four of them leading composers of the time and, technically, “amateur” musicians.

The one the Juilliard will be performing at Whitaker Center this weekend is actually the next-to-last of the six.

Unfortunately, I’m running out of time to find a reasonably good live performance, so we’ll go with this “audio” clip of the Quatour Mosaiques.

1st Movement:

2nd Movement:

3rd Movement:

4th Movement:

One of the trademarks of the “new” quartet-style Mozart was exploring was the contrapuntal independence of the parts which you can hear especially in the opening of the last movement. His very next work – and generally the “most famous” of the set – is the last of the group, nicknamed “The Dissonance” because of its curious opening.

Even if it sounds fairly tame by our standards (after hearing Wagner and Schoenberg), in Mozart’s day it was a rather alarming sound – notes that create unexpected harmonies that should resolve one way but move on to different chords than expected. Keep in mind “dissonance” really means “a note that doesn’t ordinarily belong to a given chord and requires some form of resolution” rather than “wow, that was nasty!”.

Once they were completed over the winter of 1784-85, Haydn first heard the quartets at two separate gatherings at Mozart's home, the first three on January 15th and the second three on February 12th, 1785. One assumes, on these occasions, he just listened, rather than playing in the ensemble himself). After hearing them all, Haydn made a now-famous remark to Mozart's father Leopold, who was visiting from Salzburg: "Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition."

- Dick Strawser

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