Fuga in Joseph Haydn's Op. 20 String Quartets: The String Quartet Takes Flight

Jonathan Mui


Haydn’s Op. 20 has often been viewed as representing some sort of “crisis” later resolved in the Op. 33 quartets, which is often defined as the first work of Haydn’s “maturity,” and thus confining Op. 20 to the “Early Period.” The traditional view of the Op. 20, one that is expressed even by such distinguished scholars as Charles Rosen, is that these earlier quartets are somehow less coherent in terms of musical logic. This essay will focus on the fugal quartets (Op. 20 Nos. 5, 6 and 2), often seen as unsuccessful attempts to enrich the galant idiom with Baroque counterpoint. However, I will argue that there is good evidence to suggest a greater unity in these quartets, and that such evidence falls into two main categories. Bringing to attention James Webster’s 1991 work on through-composition and “cyclic integration” in the contemporaneous Farewell Symphony, I will suggest a reading of these works guided by inter-movement links, and based on the idea that, in each quartet, the fugues serve as appropriate “culminations” (to borrow Webster’s terminology) of their respective works. I will then make reference to James Grier’s discussions in his 2010 article on invertible counterpoint in these quartets (Journal of Musicology, vol. 27), a technique that I interpret to be a successful solution to the issue of the “incompatibility” of Baroque and galant procedures. In combining these two aspects, Haydn’s fugal quartets are presented in a more optimistic light, and a case is made for the removal of labels pertaining to any notion of “immaturity.”

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