Haydn's String Quartets and Nature

Haydn’s Nature can be heard on Monday 11th February at the Utzon Room, Sydney; Thursday 14th February at Wesley Music Centre, Canberra; Friday 15th February at the Berry Uniting Church Hall, Berry; and Saturday 16th February at the Rose Room in Buradoo.

Artistic Director Skye McIntosh talks about performing Haydn’s string quartets and the theme of Nature.

Question: What inspired you to put together a program of Haydn string quartet music on the theme of nature?

Skye: Well, we have been wanting to present a program of Haydn string quartets for a long time. There are so many beautiful quartets that it’s hard to know where to begin. Having come across the unknown chamber versions of his great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons a while ago, it seemed that putting that material together with quartets on the theme of nature was a great place to start.

What has really struck you about the music during the preparation for this program?

Skye: I think what has really struck me about the music is the way in which Haydn’s compositional style developed over what was a relatively short period of time. The Bird and The Lark quartets have a glass-like clarity to the writing whereas we find much more density in the texture of the later Sunrise quartet.

The Bird quartet dates from 1780 and The Lark from 1791. The Sunrise was published a bit later (in 1797-8) at approximately the same time as The Creation when Haydn had turned his attention to writing chamber music more for the concert stage rather than to be played only in a small salon or at home.

When you hear these works side by side, you sense that they are all distinctly Haydn, but you can also hear the beginnings of Beethoven’s writing that would come shortly after. There are some incredibly ‘modern’ sounding harmonies in The Creation.

Question: Haydn wrote many incredible string quartets. Why do only a few of them have nicknames? How did the works come to have these nicknames and why?

Skye: Many people assume that it was Haydn who gave the works these names. But as far as we know, it was actually the publishers who attached the titles to the quartets. This was done in order to give them more marketing appeal. For instance, the Op. 20 quartets ended up with the title The Sun Quartets because of the picture of a sun appearing on the title page of the original edition.

There are elements of the nicknames definitely found in the music however. The Lark and The Bird have some distinctly ‘birdy’ moments and The Sunrise has a beautiful opening that, for me anyway, conjures the feeling of daybreak. All very gorgeous music!

Question: You have performed quite a few ‘arrangements’ for quartets of larger scale music from the eighteenth century.  Why is that important to you?

Skye: Performing chamber versions of larger scale works was very much a part of everyday life at the time. We feel that, as a group specialising in repertoire from this time, it is important to include some in our repertoire.

People played them at home or in small theatres where they didn’t have funds for a full orchestra. It was a good way to also hear works again in the absence of recordings as well as to popularise them. Publishers also enjoyed the benefits of selling the parts to make more money.

Many times when we have performed these arrangements audience members have commented that that hearing the work in this way has transformed their understanding of it. They seem to go away with some sort of ‘spirit’ that gets to the heart of the composer’s intention. I really enjoy that element too.

Question: What’s it like to perform such a large scale work with a small group? Doesn’t it feel like you are missing parts?

Skye: Sometimes when we first start to work on one of these historical arrangements, especially when no recording of that arrangement exists, it can be a bit of a shock initially and yes, one can feel the absence of an instrument of a texture or colour that is ‘missing’. What I find though is that after playing the music as a group for a few days, our ears adapt and the arrangement takes on its own identity as a new piece to be heard in its own way.