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Joseph Haydn’s ‘stormy’ string quartet movement

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This week cellist Norman Fischer has returned to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the final residency in this season’s Chamber Music Masters series. His first public event was the Master Class he conducted last night in the Recital Hall. The evening was arranged in such a way that he began with what may be one of the most unconventional “classical” (at least in the terminology of Charles Rosen) string quartet movements.

The movement is the second in the Hoboken III/32 quartet by Joseph Haydn, one of a set of six published as Opus 20 in 1772. This would put the composition towards the end of what became known as Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” (storm and stress) period. This was a case of post hoc nomenclature, since Haydn’s efforts preceded those of the literary movement for which this period is named. The term may have been applied because of the composer’s strong preference for minor keys, but there were also notable breaks from the conventions of his time. Thus, each of the Opus 20 quartets concludes with a fugue, a practice that had come to be dismissed as old-fashioned by the mid-eighteenth century. (There is also a story that Haydn’s “Strum und Drang” period came to a conclusion when Prince Nikolaus Esterházy told Haydn the he had his fill of the composer’s adventurism, telling Haydn firmly that it was time to “get over it.”)

The most adventurous aspect of Hoboken III/32 is probably its radical departure from a conventional Adagio movement. It begins with a 33-measure recitative to introduce the “actual” Adagio portion, which is only 31 measures in duration. The introduction amounts to a series of fragments, some in parallel octaves, others involving a brief accompanied melodic line, and all unfolding through different combinations of the four instruments. Even after that “actual” Adagio is established, it is still haunted by shades of the opening material.

Most of Fischer’s coaching focused on the movement’s opening measures. He made this material a prime example of how music has to be more than simply decoding the marks on paper. Even the notation of duration has to be “translated” into an expressive rhythmic interpretation; and, in the melodic fragments, Fischer spent more time on the accompaniment than on the melody itself. Haydn was clearly on an adventure of discovery when he composed this movement, and Fischer took some stimulating approaches to make sure that the adventure would be shared by performers and listeners alike.

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