July 9 2011
Brentano String Quartet
Chamber Music Northwest
This brief quartet is a comment on Haydn’s unfinished Quartet, Op. 103.
The Brentano Quartet’s invitation to make a ‘comment’ on Haydn’s incomplete incomparable two movement final Quartet 103 was a chance to pursue two questions; 1) Is it possible to make a Finale which re-creates in contemporary terms Haydn’s constant dialogue between symmetry and asymmetry? Could such a movement even partially suggest, in five minutes, a lifelong devotion to that consummate master? 2) Could research on this help answer a question about Haydn’s last years, a question important to composers navigating their seventh decade. Why, really did he stop working?
Haydn composed his swan song Opus 103 in 1803, and published the two movements in 1806 with an inscription from his song “Der Greis” (which had been printed as his greeting card as well) “Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I”. Studying this music, its windows wide open to the future, I thought “nonsense”, he’s covering up for something. His friend Griesinger reports a conversation about this piece: “Haydn said his field is boundless. That which could take place in music far greater than that which has already occurred. Ideas float before him by means of which Art could be brought much further”. Later Haydn said; “It’s my last child but it still looks like me.”
In 1799 Prince Lichnowsky organised performances of two Quartet sets he had commissioned, Beethoven Opus 18 and Haydn Opus 77. Prior to this event Beethoven had been showing around the scores of his Opus 18 and saying he learned how to write quartets from Föster! (An obvious allusion to Mozart’s dedication of a set of six quartets to Haydn). When commentators on the dovetailed premiers (well documented in Robbins Landon’s Haydn biography) described the Opus 18 quartets as the finest ever written, this must have hit Haydn hard. Beethoven, after quitting his studies with Haydn, immediately styled himself as more competitor than colleague. Haydn must have known his Opus 77 quartets were at a level unreachable by Beethoven at that time. Still, how does he react? When he got a full grasp of Mozart’s Figaro, Haydn graciously and unhistrionically withdrew from the operatic field.
When news of his chamber music eclipse came from his commissioner and the youthful court public, he was at a moment of the worst relations with a powerful young rival, thirty eight years his junior, (who only on his deathbed truly recanted his slighting of his great predecessor).
Haydn took one more shot at quartet writing – two middle movements – Opus 103. Then, at full strength as we know from every note, he folded his tent, and spent his final six years as part of his own posterity.
— John Harbison