Reflections on Haydn

We completed our performances of the complete Haydn String Quartets, 68 quartets plus The Seven Last Words in June. I am left with several thoughts:

Firstly how truly extraordinary Haydn was as a composer, and what incredible variety and skill he shows in the quartets.

Secondly how it is possible with the right players to actually conceive of a marathon like this, and to carry it out. Good chamber music is all about listening to each other and communicating, both with the other players and with the audience. We found that there is a middle ground between playing at home without an audience and playing a fully rehearsed programme for a paying audience. The fact that we were reading the quartets, with some preparation but no rehearsal, meant that we could imagine ourselves as Haydn’s friends, discovering the music for the first time, and sharing Haydn’s little jokes between the players. Having an audience meant that we concentrated intently and played with conviction, communicating the music directly, and sharing our experience as we played.

Thirdly I became aware that Haydn was a link between the baroque and classical periods. I was constantly reminded in the early quartets of Handel and Vivaldi, with many of the slow movements taking the form of early Italian opera arias or duets. These movements coexist alongside classical minuets and Finales. We are all taught a version of music history at school in which the baroque period ends with Bach, and then a group of composers rejects the Baroque style, creating a pre-classical style which Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven build on to create the Classical Style. Our experience of the complete Haydn quartets suggests that the reality was quite different. In the same way that Rachmaninov, Elgar, Strauss and others were sill writing romantic music after 1911, Haydn was combining baroque and classical style in a much more gradual transition to the new Classical style then traditional music history teaching suggests. Mozart introduced references to Bach and the earlier style after he was introduced to Bach’s music by Van Swieten. Haydn on the other hand was 18 years old when Bach died, and Handel was still writing at the time Haydn published his first string quartets. There are some triple fugues in the early string quartets that Bach would have admired, and the later quartets are illuminated by passages of fugal writing and baroque-style suspensions that make sense when the quartets are seen as a whole in the way we have just done.

Haydn’s String Quartets form one of the truly great creations by any composer, and to have been able to experience this magnificent body of work at first hand has been a great privilege .