String quartet ‘Sunrise” Op.76, No.4 (1797)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed 78 string quartets over the period of 40 years. Seems the power of all his quartets have never been diminished, but his last 6 string quartets feels like continuously getting more bold and more burnished one after another. All 6 quartets were composed during his grand concert trip to London making opus 76. All 6 quartets stand alone in a special historical context coming after Mozart and before Beethoven.
The 4th quartet in B-flat is known by the English nickname “Sunrise”.
The first movement begins with the sustained glow of a single, soft chord over which a solo violin slowly traces the rising sun. The “introductory” motives keeps repeating every time through the movement with higher intensity, like rising sun getting brighter as getting higher. This tendency of constant development pervades the quartet from the beginning to the end.
The Adagio, the 2nd movement, is a kind of holy hymn, a delicate praying tinged with a mysterious sorrow. We could imagine in this movement a somber sunset, a counterweight to the overflow of the first movement.
As the Minuet found its way into the standard plan of the classical symphony and quartet, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven expanded its range to become the wild card for a lively triple-meter dance. Here, Haydn transforms the French courtly dance into a robust German waltz with a steady downbeat and strong forward momentum.
The finale begins with what sounds like a charming English folk song, crisp and tuneful with a jolly lilt. Like Beethoven, Haydn had a unique skill for endlessly transforming simplicity into elegance through the power of imaginative variation. The tune sets our expectations for a lively rondo, but it is the tune itself that takes on the adventure, on the parade of thematic variations. The marvel of Haydn’s ingenuity in this last movement is only enhanced by constantly accelerating tempo as the last variation scurries beyond our breathless reach into a giddy final cadence.