String Quartet in C major (The Bird), Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
The opus 33 Hob.III:39 String Quartets were written in the Summer and Autumn of 1781 for the Viennese publisher, Artaria. This set of quartets has several nicknames, the most common of which is the 'Russian' quartets. Haydn had dedicated them to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, and many of the quartets were premiered on Christmas Day, 1781 in the Viennese apartment of the Duke’s wife, the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna.
The quartet in C major, number 3 from the set of six, is nicknamed 'The Bird'. The first movement opens with a melody in the first violin featuring a repeated, chirping grace note figure against the soft pulsing second violin and viola. After the opening twittering bird-like theme is heard, the first violin plunges two octaves down against the rising cello line like a swooping bird. This is then repeated in D minor, unsettling the home key, before Haydn brings it back to C major in a series of swerving and modulating lines.
The second subject combines the fragmented nature of the open motives into a rounded, jolly folk-like tune. The development section explores a range of keys before the bird calls turn mysterious in a sequence of hushed and clashing suspensions. The recapitulation wittily continues to unsettle, like the opening passage, sneaking in before we realise it, off-key, with hints towards G major in the very last bars, with a reharmonisation of the main theme.
The second movement, with the title Scherzo and in the key of C major would almost certainly usually be an upbeat, bright movement. But Haydn, forever unique and mysterious, creates a tender and veiled mood which is more of a prayer than a dance—the quartet playing sotto voce or 'half-voiced' on their lowest strings and beginning on the third of the chord. The trio section brings a return of the chirping motif from the first movement, this time as a duet for the violins on their highest strings before the opening scherzando returns.
The warmly textured and serene Adagio is a condensed sonata form, which surely left its mark on the slow movement of Mozart’s ‘Dissonance’ Quartet, which also happens to be in the same key, perhaps not just a coincidence. Mozart and Haydn were good colleagues who were deeply positive about each other’s work. Haydn would become a mentor for Mozart which led to the latter affectionately referring to Haydn as 'Papa'. Instead of a literal repeat of the first exposition, Haydn varies it with an expressive and elaborate figuration for the first violin.
The fourth and final movement, a rondo, is frantic in nature. The manic main theme that rocks between G and E is from a Slavonic folk dance. After the melody plummets from the first violin down to the cello, Haydn sidesteps into a passionate Hungarian gypsy-style episode. This mood is quickly destroyed by the energetic main theme. The coda adds an element of slapstick – Haydn always likes to add a few jokes to his music – with the theme fragmented and thrown around the upper and lower parts before the music evaporates into thin air.
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