Yesterday afternoon’s concert by the members of the New Esterházy Quartet (violinists Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violist Anthony Martin, and cellist William Skeen) marked a major changing point in the history of Western music, although one that tends to receive relatively little attention in most music history classes. The program was entitled Pages Torn from Hoffmeister, named for Franz Anton Hoffmeister, founder of one of Vienna’s first music publishing businesses (not the first, which was founded by Carlo Artaria in 1765). In 1785 Hoffmeister announced the initiation of a periodical service, each issue of which would offer a collection of chamber music. This idea of music for “home consumption” was not new, since Georg Philipp Telemann offered his Getreue Musikmeister in 1728, offering new music for subscribers every two weeks.
However, Telemann operated out of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, not only independent of monarchic authority but also positioned to play a major role in forming “the world that trade created” (to appropriate the title of a delightful collection of essays by Kenneth Pomeranz and Steven Topik). As that world matured, the powers of the noble classes and families began to ebb with the rise of the mercantile class. By 1765 Vienna had an established bourgeois class of consumers, and music publication could become a viable business by giving those consumers something new to buy. Hoffmeister’s periodical thus emerged as an innovative product on this new “market for music.”
Hoffmeister was also smart enough to structure his product around public appeal. To this end he persuaded both Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to contribute. Their contributions, along with a quartet of Hoffmeister’s own composition, constituted yesterday afternoon’s New Esterházy program.
Indeed, the program began with Haydn’s contribution to Hoffmeister’s first issue, his Hoboken III/43 quartet in D minor. This quartet is particularly fascinating for its sense of understatement. The first movement has the tempo indication Andante ed Innocentemente; and, while we have no trouble appreciating Haydn’s inventiveness, the whole movement is cloaked in an almost naïve rhetoric (perhaps not even “almost”). Even the Presto Finale concludes with a quiet gesture, almost a sign of “whew!” after the final expenditure of melodic energy. (See the final measures illustrated above.) Perhaps Haydn was anticipating how amateurs might feel by the time they made it to the end of the quartet.
Needless to say, there was nothing amateur about the New Esterházy performance. However, it is worth noting that their period instruments suited the low-key approach that Haydn had decided to take. These instruments were not intended to dominate through bold sonorities or powerful dynamics. They were instruments intended for listening in more intimate settings in which subtlety was the trump card. As a result, the rather unique personality that Haydn brought to this quartet was well served by not only the New Esterházy approach to execution but also the fundamental qualities of their instruments.
That same first issue of Hoffmeister’s periodical also included one of his own quartets, which could not have been more different from Haydn’s offering. As Martin observed in his introductory remarks, Hoffmeister’s quartet was in the key of F minor, a particularly challenging key when it comes to using the open strings of any of the instruments as a reference for pitch. Furthermore, the two outer Allegro movements both involve intensely driving rhythms, as well as an abundance of passages requiring rapid-fire bowing. Only the middle Adagio movement provides a bit of respite with its song-like melodic line.
This led me to wonder whether Hoffmeister may have arranged the selection in his first issue in order of difficulty, making the whole publication a sort of Gradus ad Parnassum for amateur string quartet players in which he modestly placed himself at the Parnassian peak. Such difficulty, however, was hardly in evidence in the New Esterházy performance. Each member glided through the virtuoso passages posed by the score; and one would not have thought that pitch reference was a problem had not Martin bothered to mention it.
The second half of the concert presented Mozart’s K. 499 quartet in D major, which appeared in Hoffmeister’s 1786 publication. This is now often known as Mozart’s “Hoffmeister” quartet. It is thoroughly delightful in its inventiveness, which involves the rhetorical use of strategic instances of silence, a technique which Ludwig van Beethoven would subsequently pick up and use to even more powerful effect. New Esterházy performed this with all the technical discipline and period-appropriate expressiveness that the music deserved, thus concluding this salute to the rise of amateur music-making among the bourgeoisie.