Haydn Quartet opus 103

The d minor Quartet, opus 103, is a fragment, the final chapter in Joseph Haydn’s monumental string quartet oeuvre. It consists of two movements; it is unclear whether they were intended as the inner movements of a four- movement work, or as the first and second movements. Haydn composed this music around the same time as the two opus 77 quartets, which were meant to be part of a six-quartet set; presumably, then, this work would have been a third quartet in that set. In failing health, the composer subsequently allowed the fragment to be published by itself, as opus 103. He added the following words to the score, a quote from his own chorale Der Greis: “Gone is all my strength, old and weak am I.” How many geniuses would feel moved to apologize for an unfinished work, after bestowing such a splendid and prolific output on the world?

Haydn the man may have become enfeebled; but in this quartet, Haydn the composer is fully in control. The first movement, marked Andante grazioso, is gentle, pensive, simple rhythmically and formally. The face it presents to the world is guileless, seemingly devoid of artifice, the work of a man with nothing left to prove; and yet it bears a patina from sixty-seven earlier quartets, with all their innovations and profundity. The music moves lightly, but there is everywhere a feeling of gravity. Musical lines often head downward (especially in descending scales), and chromatic darkenings of the harmony constantly suggest a minor-key presence lurking behind the major key, a tender melancholy. In fact, the entire movement describes a larger, circular descent: at the end of the first section, the music swings down a major third to the startling key of G flat major, where the middle section begins; then the middle section itself ends in D major, another third lower, and then the circle is completed when the main section resumes down a final third, back in the home key of B-flat. It is a simple but beautiful, and in Haydn’s time rather unusual, harmonic device, enfolded in such a simple-sounding movement.

The second movement, a minuet, is in d minor, once again a major third away from the work’s main key. Defiant and robust, it seems to pay lip service to the minuet of Mozart’s d minor Quartet, one last chapter in the history of mutual inspiration between these two composers. The main section of this minuet alternates forthright, dotted-rhythm gestures with quieter, more uncertain interpolations, the most striking being an anxious four-note chromatic ascent that is passed back and forth between first violin and cello, uncertainty beneath the surface bravado. A more friendly trio intervenes in D major; this is vintage Haydn, complete with teasing hesitations, strange irregular phrase lengths, jocular embellishments. Then the gruff main section returns, ending with the first violin’s flamboyant upward scale. Despite its fragmentary nature, this quartet feels like an authoritative exit line for the man who elevated the quartet genre to greatness for the first time.

Note by Misha Amory