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Haydn String Quartet Op 33 No 2 Analysis Essay

Reprintable only with permission from the author.

Joseph Haydn’s opus 33 string quartets are widely held to be the first set wherein the composer displayed full maturity in his mastery of the form – this in spite of their brilliantly experimental opus 20 precursors. The opus 33 quartets are dubbed “Gli Scherzi”, a reference to Haydn’s replacement of the more usual Minuet movement with a lighter, quicker Scherzo in each work.

Opus 33 no. 1 is set in the rare key of B minor: rare for Haydn, and almost unique within the entire standard quartet canon. This oddness seems to affect the music from the very outset of the first movement, the opening bars at first unsure whether to proceed in major or minor. The progress of the entire movement is beset with difficulties: moving in fits and starts, stuttering at times, halted by eloquent pauses, often changing its mood on impulse. It is rhetorical rather than melodic music, questing in nature, and is over as soon as it reaches firm ground, almost by definition. The second movement is a very brief Scherzo, alternating a clever main section with a luminous Trio in B major. Following this, the slow movement evokes the world of a stately, quiet dance – perhaps in reparation for the missing Minuet – which proves both adventurous and beautiful as it unfolds chromatically through many modulations. The Finale, a breathless Presto, is an exciting romp which places the first violinist in the virtuosic spotlight, requiring swift arpeggiation, fiddle-like string crossings, and a constant ranging over all registers.

Note by Misha Amory

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Haydn - String Quartet In E-flat Major Opus 33, No. 2 ' The Joke '

Like many musical forms, the string quartet evolved from earlier musical forms. The string quartet's history began in  the Baroque era with the trio sonata, a form that had two soloists accompanied by the continuo which consisted of a keyboard instrument and a bass instrument. Alessandro Scarlatti (father of Domenico Scarlatti) took the form to the next step and added a third soloist and omitted the keyboard, letting the bass string instrument play the bass line by itself. This had already been common in the early 18th century, but Scarlatti was the first known composer that wrote works for the 4-instrument ensemble titled Sonata for four instruments: two violins, viola, and cello without harpsichord.

The early form of the string quartet was taken up by the young Josef Haydn, who at first used the form because his resources were limited. He wrote a few quartets for amateur use, works that were more like a Viennese serenade as they consisted of 5 movements. Haydn neglected the form for quite a few years but in 1769 he resumed writing them and in a matter of a few yeas had written eighteen of them. By now the form had been standardized to include 4 movements. Haydn ended up writing 68 string quartets, and ever since the string quartet has been a test of a composer's skill and command of their art.

Haydn's six quartets of his Opus 33 were written in 1781 and they are sometimes referred to as the 'Russian' quartets because they were dedicated to the Grand Duke of Russia and first played in the Viennese apartment of the Grand Duke's wife. The second quartet of the opus is in E-flat major and has earned the nickname of 'the joke ' for reasons given below. The quartet is in 4 movements:

I. Allegro moderato -  Haydn was very important in the development of sonata form, but his musical instinct didn't follow any kind of a textbook working out of the form. The first movement of this quartet shows Haydn's fondness for creating an entire movement from a musical motive only a few bars long. The main theme is stated immediately. Haydn plays this theme through and instead of a contrasting different theme, he takes the theme and changes it in ways that give the impression of contrast. So instead of two themes in his exposition, there is but one theme and a variant that fulfills the role of a second theme, a technique that has been called thematic elaboration; a 
method
 of 
taking
 subjects
 of
 the
 exposition
 and
developing
 and 
reassembling 
the 
sections 
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 unexpected 
ways. If done by a master composer such as Haydn, thematic elaboration can give a feeling of unity to a piece of music while also giving a sense of contrast to avoid monotony. The development continues thematic elaboration (including the theme modulating to C minor), the recapitulation is reached after which the movement ends.

II. Scherzo: Allegro -  All six of the opus 33 quartets have the usual minuet movement replaced by a scherzo, a first for Haydn. As with his other quartets, Haydn changes the order of the scherzo; sometimes being the second movement, other times the first. Haydn's scherzo has the same basic form of a minuet with both parts of the scherzo being repeated at the beginning, a trio, and a reprise of the scherzo with no repeat. The nature of this scherzo could be one of the reasons this quartet got the name 'The Joke' for the first section of the scherzo is ten bars long, an odd number that does not break down into two 4-bar phrases. Haydn inserts two extra bars in the middle of the two 4-bar phrases which sound rather odd, especially for the time it was written:
 These two bars, with the first violin playing the slurred eighth notes C-flat and B-flat give an awkward kind of humor to the piece. After the scherzo plays through the first time the trio begins. Haydn has the first violin slide from note to note to good effect that adds to the joke:

III. Largo -  The slow movement song-like theme has the viola and cello play a duet in the beginning, and the violins enter with their own duet. The theme is interrupted by some biting chords about half way through the movement, but the theme returns and is itself an example of thematic elaboration.

IV. Presto -Written in rondo form, this movement has a sprightly theme that is interrupted twice by contrasting material. The coda of the movement is the reason for the quartet's nickname, as Haydn inserts rests in the music at strategic places within the rondo theme, each of which can be taken as the end of the piece. After a grand pause of more than three measures, the first section of the rondo theme is played pianissimo, and the work ends.

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