July 30, 2024 : Danish String Quartet

June 10, 2024

Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No. 3
Robert Schumann, String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3

Folk music

Haydn, String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 20, No.

Haydn’s Opus 20 quartets were nicknamed the “Sun,” after an illustration of a rising sun that adorned the cover of the first printed edition. Whether intended or not, the symbolism fits, signifying the rise of a new musical style and the full emergence of Haydn’s career as a string quartet composer. The musical style in question is Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), which swept through Europe around 1770, and signaled a move away from light, courtly pieces and towards music of heightened urgency and emotional depth. The style is especially evident in the two minor-key quartets (Nos. 3 and 5). In this opus Haydn also liberated the cello from its rather staid role as a base line instrument to fully participate in the four-part textures. 

The Quartet Op. 20, No. 3 contains additional breaks with tradition. The outer movements are notably agitated and feature asymmetrical seven-bar phrases (a break from the melodies that fit into four- and eight-bar chunks). The anxious, passionate mood carries into the minuet movement, with its five-bar phrases, though it is relieved by a genial trio section. The slow third movement is a reverie on a single expansive melody while the finale brings crisp accents, lurching pauses, and an unexpectedly hushed ending. 

Robert Schumann, String Quartet No. 3 in A Major, Op. 41, No. 3 

Robert Schumann’s Third String Quartet is the product of the busy chamber music year of 1842, when he was visited by “constant quartet thoughts,” according to his diary. He started off the year by joining his wife, the celebrated pianist Clara Schumann, on her concert tour of several German cities. But after a month on the road, Robert’s duties as a music critic for the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik summoned him back to their Leipzig home. Alone and pondering his next compositional moves, he began a prolonged study of the quartets of Haydn, Mozart, and especially, late Beethoven. 

The three String Quartets Op. 41 would result from this investigation, published with a dedication to his friend, Felix Mendelssohn. The Quartet in A major Op. 41, No. 3 begins with a two-note descending figure that is nearly identical to the opening gesture of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 31, No. 3—a possible salute to the late master. The motive becomes a unifying device throughout the opening movement, starting with the main theme. The second movement, marked Assai agitato, is a turbulent theme and variations built on brisk, syncopated phrases over unstable harmonies. In the third movement, a brooding, lyrical Adagio, Schumann introduces a heartbeat-like motive in the second violin. This gesture carries over into the finale, a jaunty rondo notable for its bouncy refrain and rousing finish. 

Schumann’s quartets were introduced by an ensemble led by Ferdinand David, a leading virtuoso and the dedicatee of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. Presenting the works to his publisher, Schumann said that “you may rest assured that I have spared no pains to produce something really respectable—indeed, I sometimes think my best.” 

— Brian Wise

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