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Haydn: “String Quartet in C”

Franz Joseph Haydn wrote the six opus 76 quarters in 1796-97, and they are his last completed set in the genre. Having just returned from his second (and final) visit to England, Haydn was at the height of his fame as a composer. Haydn had been writing quartets on and off for 46 years, and the quartets in this group show a boldness of style. Full of energy and confidence, the op. 76 quartets were commissioned by Count Joseph Erdody, a Hungarian nobleman.The Count paid a fee of 100 ducats, with the stipulation that for a few years they would be for “his use only.” The “Erdody Quartets” were published in 1799 and became an instant success. British critic Charles Burney wrote a letter to Haydn in 1799 in which he remarked that he had “never received more pleasure from instrumental music; [the quartets] are full of invention, fire, good taste, and new taste, and new effects, and seem the production, not of a sublime genius who has written so much and so well already, but of one of the highly-cultivated talents, who had expended none of his fire before.”

During Haydn’s visits to England, he was impressed by the frequent performance of God Save the King. Upon his return home he felt that the Austrians also needed a patriotic hymn to give them pride in their country (which was taking a severe beating from Napoleon). In January 1797 he set a short text by Leopold Haschka titled Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser ( God Save Emperor Franz), which was adopted by the people and remained the Austrian national anthem for over a century. Haydn’s anthem was taken by the Germans in 1918 and adopted as their own. The words were changed to Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles, and the song remained Germany’s national anthem through World War II. As a result many survivors of the Holocaust still struggle to listen to this music because of the memories it evokes. One of Haydn’s most popular themes, the melody is also recognizable as the Protestant hymn Glorious things of Thee are spoken.

Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, op. 76, no. 3 is called the “Emperor” quartet, and is probably his most well known, thanks to the inclusion of the “Emperor’s Hymn” as the subject of the slow movement’s theme and variations. Haydn gives this theme an unusual treatment–using the anthem like a “cantus firmus,” giving the melody to each instrument in turn, which the music in the other voices is varied.

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