Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was one of the first composers to write for a chamber ensemble of two violins, viola and cello. The works he wrote in that developing genre—nearly seventy scores spanning forty years—were pivotal in establishing the string quartet as a chamber music mainstay. String quartets, like most chamber music at that time, spread primarily through published editions that amateurs could perform in private. Haydn proved to be quite shrewd at selling his works to publishers in various European capitals, and he even monetized the dedication of the score: For a series of quartets written in 1793, he convinced a Viennese nobleman, Count Anton Georg Apponyi, to pay a hefty premium to have the works dedicated to him. Haydn eventually published the quartets in two sets of three, listed as Opus 71 and Opus 74. The String Quartet in E-flat Major (Op. 71, No. 3) is a particularly buoyant specimen, with first and last movements set in a lively Vivace tempo. The slow movement, constructed as variations on a light-stepping theme, strides forward “with motion” (Andante con moto), while the third movement, a classic Haydn Minuet, relishes it playful staccato articulations and unexpected turns of phrase.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), following in the wake of Verdi, was the standard-bearer for Italian opera at the turn of the twentieth century. His verismo style brought realism and depth of human emotion to his characters, and his musical language incorporated the best aspects of Verdi, Wagner, and French opera composers such as Bizet and Gounod. Puccini hardly wrote any instrumental music, and most of it went unpublished in his lifetime, including the short string quartet that he composed in 1890 to memorialize the Duke of Savoy. The title, Chrysanthemums, reflects the European tradition of using those flowers for funerals.
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) spent an unhappy six weeks alone in the spring of 1842, after returning home to Leipzig while his wife, Clara, toured Europe giving highly touted piano recitals. During that time, he busied himself by poring over string quartets by Haydn and Mozart and studying the art of counterpoint as perfected by Bach in the same city of Leipzig a century earlier. With those historical precedents in mind, Schumann composed a set of three string quartets that summer, the first chamber music he had completed since his teenage years. The Introduzione that begins the String Quartet No. 1 in A Minor evokes the feeling of a slow Haydn introduction, while the imitative counterpoint speaks to Schumann’s engagement with Baroque polyphony. The spirit of Bach returns when the viola initiates a syncopated fugato, introducing new rigor into the free-flowing, songlike material. The Scherzo owes its greatest debt to Felix Mendelssohn, Schumann’s friend and colleague in Leipzig and the dedicatee of this quartet. After a songlike slow movement, the rapid finale takes a page from Beethoven in making the most of a compact gesture, first heard in the rising proclamation of the opening chords.
© 2018 Aaron Grad.