String quartet in E major (Op. 54/3) — Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
i Allegro, ii Largo cantabile, iii Menuetto (Allegretto), iv Finale (Presto)
Haydn was the son of uneducated peasants (a wheelwright and a cook), and though his talent gained him access to some first class models, he was essentially self taught as a musician and composer. He is nevertheless regarded as the "father" of the symphony, of sonata form, and of the classical string quartet. From 1761 to 1790 Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister by the wealthy Esterhazy family. In 1779, the aging Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy gave Haydn a new contract permitting him to accept external commissions and market his compositions. (Haydn was also the first composer in Vienna to sell his compositions commercially.) For the next 11 years, till the Prince's death, Haydn was able to frequent the Viennese musical world for 2 months each year, meeting, and indeed playing quartets with, the younger Mozart, and in consequence to develop considerably his concept of the quartet into a more fluid and complex form. This quartet, composed in 1788, is from one of three sets known as "Tost" quartets (dedicated to the Esterhazy violinist Johann Tost). This dedication explains the virtuosic nature of the first violin line, for example in the triplet runs in the first movement, the florid ornamentation that almost overloads the melody in the slow movement with hemidemisemiquavers (64th notes), and the stratospheric leaps and runs of the finale. The outer movements, both in E major, are both introduced on the 2nd violin. The Largo is in A major with a middle section in A minor. The Minuet forms a brief uncomplicated interlude, before the developmental sonata-form of the last movement, the main theme of which spins out of the trio section of the Minuet.
Quartet in F minor (Op. 80) — Felix Mendelssohn (1809 - 1847)
i Allegro vivace assai (presto), ii Allegro assai, iii Adagio, iv Finale (allegro molto)
In May1847 Mendelssohn's musical older sister Fanny died prematurely, inconsolably affecting the composer. This quartet, Mendelssohn's last major work, was composed in the following months under great emotional tension, but in November Felix himself died, probably of the same cerebral seizures that had affected his sister, both their parents, and their grandfather Moses. One can see in this work both anger and despair. The 1st movement starts with an agitated presto interspersed with a gentler tune and ends with a chordal coda. There is neither a Haydnesque minuet nor a Schubertian scherzo; instead a rhythmically thrusting or searching rondo-like allegro as 2nd movement, which fades out as though feeling the need of a slow movement. The adagio that follows is more wandering than searching, ending in a stillness that is not really peace. The finale, more muscular and less agitated than the 1st movement, ends with a driving but rather bleak climax.
Quartet in E minor (Op. 59/2) — Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)
i Allegro, ii Molto adagio, iii Scherzo (allegretto), iv Finale (presto)
This product of Beethoven's "middle" period, published in 1806, is the second of three quartets commissioned by the Russian ambassador in Vienna, Count Razumovsky, who asked Beethoven to incorporate a Russian tune in each work. Though a gifted violinist himself, Andrei Razumovsky also employed a quartet of professional musicians which included the famous Schuppanzigh. This E minor quartet opens with no less than 5 false starts, and 4 grand pauses or empty bars, but eventually settles down to spin out extended lyrical motifs. Part of the impact of the music is in its rhythmic novelties; extended off-beat passages, repeating motifs. The second movement is in E major. Above it Beethoven carefully, but unnecessarily, wrote (in Italian) "This movement is to be played with much feeling". It opens with a hymn-like contemplation (of the starry heavens – according to Beethoven's pupil Czerny) after which the lower 3 voices introduce a wonderful singing melody, ornamented and pointed by the 1st violin. There follows a rich development of the thematic and rhythmic material in contrasting moods. The "thème russe" occurs in the second (E major) section of the Scherzo. It is a Ukrainian song ('Glory to the Sun'; published a few years earlier) with a curious off-beat rhythm. In fact Beethoven uses only half the tune. It is introduced on the viola against a running triplet accompaniment, but passes canonically through all 4 voices. The finale is a rondo whose main theme has an irresistible and unforgettable skippety rhythm.