Any of Joseph Haydn’s seventy-odd string quartets will offer you a moment of cheery escapism. They might even trick you into thinking you’re back in the pub back conversing with three good mates for a while, such is their wit and charm.
His Opus 33 collection of six quartets, written in 1781 and nicknamed the Russian Quartets (so-called for their dedication to Grand Duke Paul of Russia) are as merry and carefree as they come. Haydn gets up to extra high jinks in the second of the collection, a four-movement work dubbed ‘The Joke’ on account of its teasing final movement.
The quartet opens with a classic example of Haydn’s sheer inventiveness, with almost the entire movement stemming from the jovial opening idea. The dialogue between the instruments is sophisticated and taut, but never not dazzlingly simple and beautifully proportioned.
A more rustic Scherzo movement follows, with folk dance foot-stomps elevated with Haydn’s customary grace. The slow movement allows a brief moment of stillness and contemplation from the otherwise fizzing exchanges, with a lamenting duet between the viola and cello, then repeated by the two violins.
So what’s the gag? At the very end of the final movement, when the principal theme returns, it’s full of hesitations, each longer than the last. In what could be the musical equivalent of a modern day ‘dad joke’ from Papa Haydn, it sounds like the quartet aren’t quite sure if they’ve reached the end, with the final phrase more of a whispered question to each other.
Haydn apparently crafted this stuttering ending to win a bet that the could catch out rude audience members talking before the music stopped. Hilarious, no?
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