Haydn Quartet opus 33 #5

Reprintable only with permission from the author.

Haydn Quartet opus 33 #5 in G Major

1781, the year Haydn gifted the world the six quartets of his Op. 33, saw, as well, the publication of another great and influential work: Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Of course Haydn would not have known that treatise as he was composing his quartets; still they seem to explore similar preoccupations. Whereas Kant tends to cloak his ideas in complex, sometimes turgid language, Haydn is the master of thoughtful lightness, of offerings that delight through their clever misdirections. Both speak of the way we perceive and attempt to understand the world and its manifold ambiguities.

Kant questions whether our faculty of reason can wrest the true, intrinsic meaning from objects in the world. Against this possibility, he claims that the categories and concepts we hold in our minds condition and shape what we are able to know. These are inexorably intertwined; our concepts extract meaning, and are containers to be filled, where the knowledge obtained must take on the form of its container. The opening movement of Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Op. 33. No. 5, plays, as well, with the doubleness of intrinsic and imposed meaning. Within the hierarchical tonal system that organizes Haydn’s language (important to say, akin to Kantian categories), the first gesture heard is one that concludes, that creates an ending: “and so it was.” It is as if we have stumbled into a room only to catch the last words of a story, having missed everything that led us there. And yet, here it necessarily functions as an introductory gesture, opening the gate in the direction we would expect it to close. (In Alice in Wonderland, the White Queen says to Alice “it’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Here we have a perfect illustration of remembering something we’ve yet to experience. It seems to me that Lewis Carroll and Haydn would have gotten along quite well!) The figuration, itself, could be merely formulaic, but as the piece begins (again) in a more continuous vein we see that it is used motivically; what was first presented as a fait accompli is now looped with itself to create continuity and then, only after all other options have been tried, at long last as a closing figure. Impossible to trust that it has its own, inviolable meaning. Rather how we read it depends on our own expectations and how we perceive it in time and harmonic space. The ambiguity delights, as it does in a good pun. (Even in bad ones, I might argue.) When a second, contrasting theme appears after a stop in the proceedings, it goes nowhere, rather quickly reverting to the opening material. And the exposition (first major section) of the movement ends with attempts to begin again, the first two notes of the main theme orphaned from their continuation. When the first section is repeated in performance, the initial gesture disappears. Instead, the attempts to begin find their connection to the theme, enabling reentry.

That opening (closing!) figure populates the movement, in all of its guises. Carroll’s Cheshire Cat says “the proper order of things is often a mystery to me,” and so it seems here. There is even a strange, dilated and exotically altered version that almost halts and derails the narrative, falsely promising something darker and more fraught, in minor. So such thing, as it is a misdirection that further highlights the levity of refusing, again and again, to let much be taken seriously. When the stuttering, sputtering first-two-notes-only material reappears it, only now, and after a rhetorical silence, leaps back to using the closing idea as a point of entry before becoming reintegrated into its theme. Most typically in a movement of this structure, by this point we are more or less repeating what was heard earlier, with small alterations that allow contrasts of key to be resolved (so that what was sensed as a bit farther away can return home). There is a need of recomposing the transition between themes in order for this to work out, and here Haydn expands that moment of transition and inserts playful banter based on only the quick notes at the end of the opening/closing gesture. So the end of the beginning/end is used for continuation, not long after we’ve had the beginning of the real beginning used as an ending, or at least sort of becoming one. Curiouser and curiouser!

After a moment of suspension, there is a sudden, startling loud upbeat that sends us careening into a version of the main tune in the wrong key, pompously self-assured when it has no reason to be so. When we do find our way back to the correct, resolving key, it is with a smile and two winks; that very first figure heard now twice, and upon its repetition we understand it to say what it seemed to want to mean at the start: this is the end. (More Lewis Carroll: “ ‘You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, ‘that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!’ ‘You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, ‘that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!’” Indeed.)

Ambiguity colors each of the quartet’s other movements, as well. The second movement is a darkly passionate aria for the first violin, amidst turbulent waves in the second violin and time somberly measured by the lower two instruments, a sort of “woe is me!” lament. A fateful and severe figure is first whispered by the first violin before being taken up in unison by the group, a statement of great rhetoric strength, such as might be offered by the chorus in a Greek tragedy. The first violin takes on the role of tragic heroine, wailing, exhorting, daring to hope. There is even a sort of written out, emotive accompanied cadenza that searches and pleads. All might be a revelation of true melancholic depth, were it not for the final cadence, in which the Greek chorus statement is punctuated by a wink and a ridiculous final unison played by all with a jangly pizzicato. In one fell swoop all that comes before is called into question, the listener awakened, the spell broken.

And immediately the chortling scherzo gallops in as if to mock gleefully what has just transpired. Is it organized in three beat units, or two? Haydn plays here with rhythmic ambiguity in the organization of the first violin part (the lower voices playing their cards close to their chests by repeating the same note on each beat, thus offering no allegiance to any underlying pattern), so that it bounds along energetically before righting itself. When that happens, the phrase seems on course to finish symmetrically and satisfyingly, in a bigger grouping of eight bars, typical scansion for the time. It would take only one note more than Haydn wrote to round out the phrase thus, but, Haydn being Haydn, that promised note is replaced by a silence, that silence followed by a quiet, eyelash fluttering aside which finishes the sentence late and which destroys the rhythmic set up with delight. (Sort of like a limerick with an extra line.) He repeats this trick several times and, rather than grow tiresome, it retains its charm even as we learn to anticipate its arrival. Oscillations between two beat patterns and three continue, as well, such that we rarely feel grounded or certain, which thrills like a carnival ride. The contrasting trio section is a foil to the scherzo’s shenanigans, far more regular, if not without nods in the direction of the two vs. three confusion.

The ambiguity of the final movement, a set of variations, derives from the expectation of what might be varied, and the thwarting thereof. The rather naive tune seems a perfect template for morphing into new and unexpected shapes, ever more abstracted and disguised. (This tune, and the movement overall, are surely the inspiration for Mozart’s more profound variation movement at the conclusion of his Quartet in d minor, K421.) Instead the promise of constant metamorphosis is thwarted. At first there are minor ornamental changes, clever and enchanting, but eventually the tune reverts to its original form, only placed in new environs, with fleet passages in the viola and cello lines dancing alongside. As if realizing it is somewhat stuck, the theme, in a final transformation, sprouts a new ornamentation, the tempo lifts, and the movement scampers toward a bright and optimistic finish.

Haydn is a philosopher indeed, whose quasi-Kantian explorations of how we perceive and organize our perceptions abound with wit and great jouissance. And I like to think that he, too, like Lewis Carroll’s Queen, is the master of believing as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Note by Mark Steinberg