A preview of the October 2017 issue’s Masterclass, which features detailed performance suggestions and marked-up sheet music for the first violin part of the first movement of Haydn’s ‘Sunrise’ Quartet, op.76 no.4
Haydn is one of my favourite quartet composers, and the ‘Sunrise’ Quartet is one of the first pieces the Schumann Quartet played together. Haydn’s works inspired quartets by Mozart and Beethoven, and they are very good training for playing the later Classical repertoire. He wrote very few markings in his scores, so we need to look carefully at the music to explore the structure and most important harmonic elements, to see why he wrote everything that he did. Having an understanding of the theoretical construction of the piece, and looking at how that construction brings life and character to the music, gives us a framework for our emotions.
Analysing the score
Some musicians prefer not to analyse the score, and can play excellently based only on intuition. But for quartets I think it’s a good idea to sit down with one’s colleagues to identify the main musical events and turning points. First instincts are important, but they are not always correct. Without understanding the role that each musician has to play, an interpretation may not work.
It is similar to reading a poem: one can read the words without truly understanding them; or analyse them to gain deeper insight into their meaning and a better connection to them. It’s not enough just to be sad or happy: what is interesting is everything in between. All the time we should feel as though we are stretching for something we can’t quite reach. The harder we try, the further we will go.
As a quartet, we don’t break every section of the music down theoretically, but we will stop to analyse any spots we do not fully understand. This may not make us play better, but it does make us play more consciously, and I think that is the goal. We should feel with our brains and think with our hearts! Of course, analysing the music doesn’t always work: it’s not like magic. If something is still missing in our interpretation, we go back to basics, looking at our bow divisions and the colours and intonation of our chords to make sure that we are listening vertically to the harmony across the group.
Contrast and character
The opening of this movement is pure and lyrical, in two six-bar phrases: one to open the theme, and one to close it again. Harmonically, these twelve bars are a unit, and their success is dependent on how the second violin, viola and cello play the harmony that accompanies the improvisatory first-violin melody. Pay close attention to where the chords create tension and where they release, and play and feel them as an ensemble.
This is particularly necessary in bars 5–6 and 11–12: every harmony and chord – not only the melody – should have its own identity. Practise this by taking out the passing notes and playing only the main harmonies, thinking about the different emotions the chords create. It is important not just to start each new harmony together, but also to have the same energy.
If we are not connected to each other in this way, the sound will be unbalanced even if individual players’ volumes are exactly the same.
From bar 13 Haydn builds up the voices and creates a beautiful harmony. Think about how the line works: where do the harmonies and voices go? We should create a really special colour here. The next change of character is at the semiquaver (s) passage in bar 22, where we like to create a sudden, unexpected contrast. Another transition is in bar 69, where suddenly we are in D minor for the development section. We should have a very different sound here: a mysterious piano, for a new beginning.
When we rehearse these changes, we sometimes play a section until the change – for example, bars 13–21 – then stop and pause to think about what’s coming next. If we didn’t know, what would we write there ourselves? Haydn could have finished the movement on the first beat of bar 22; or of bars 66, 135 or 182 – they are natural punctuation points. It’s important to feel that and then to grow out of them. We try to keep the feeling of tension during that pause, and also to prepare ourselves for the change in mood. That’s important when playing in a group, because it helps all the players to feel the music together. When we are ready we continue, all the time thinking about how our voices relate to each other, and their character.
Variation, creativity and humour
Understanding Haydn’s humour is important: if you shine a light on the wrong side of an object, you won’t see it for what it really is. Reading Haydn’s letters will help, and there is a good biography published by Hans-Josef Irmen: Joseph Haydn Leben und Werk. For me, learning more about Haydn changed my approach: I no longer feel he is untouchable, but instead that we should be buddies – with great respect!
Haydn was incredibly creative. There are patterns and similarities in his music, but always with variation. He was constantly having new ideas to make his music richer. For example, his phrases are not in the four- to eight-bar sections you might expect. Instead they are irregular: the first two phrases of the movement are six bars each; then from bar 13 there is a four-bar phrase; and from bar 17 a five-bar phrase. It’s always different. Knowing this helps us to be more alert as to what is going to happen next.
In fact, Haydn’s music is full of surprises: look at how he cuts off the quavers (e) in bar 26 and writes an unexpected slur and sforzando in bar 27: he could easily have repeated the same material again, but instead he suddenly changes musical direction. Again, from bar 44 we have repeated material in a sequence descending until the end of bar 48 – it could go on forever, but then he takes us a different way from bar 49. If you repeated bars 44, 45 and 46 in exactly the same way, it would get very boring; but Haydn has already written a variation in the rhythm in bar 46. Then in bar 60, the syncopations make fun of the more serious theme that comes beforehand, giving another huge contrast. In bar 65, rather than repeat bar 64 exactly as it is, he changes the articulation. Humour, creativity and variation are what make up his musical language.
In general, if a composer such as Mozart or Haydn writes dots over notes, he does not want us to slur; but if there are no dots, we have more freedom. For example, I like to slur the semiquavers in bar 159 to match the articulation written in bar 57; although sometimes I vary my bowing here. It is important, especially in Classical repertoire, to understand slurs not as bowings but as indications of expression, and to enjoy the difference in feel between the slurred and non-slurred material.
Using period instruments
We do not use period instruments, but in some areas I think modern set-ups are not perfectly suited to this music. For example, the opening chords sound warmer and more natural with period instruments, because the bows sink into the string and resonate in a different way. Modern instruments have much higher tension and a harder sound. At the same time, we can bring out some of the brighter, more exciting passages more effectively.
INTERVIEW BY PAULINE HARDING
Watch: The Banff International String Quartet Quartet Competition’s winning quartet the Dover Quartet perform Haydn’s ’Sunrise’ Quartet