Saturday, November 16, 2019

A Fan Letter to Papa Haydn

Dear Papa Haydn,

I am so grateful for your string quartets. My first experience with them was playing viola in your Opus 33 and Opus 76 quartets, and the experience of playing them gave me the courage to start composing. I know I am not alone. You would blush if you knew how much influence you have had among composers and quartet players all over the world, and throughout three centuries. It hasn't always been rosy. You would be shocked to learn the fate and checkered history of what happened with the theme you wrote for the exquisite set of variations in the "Kaiser" Quartet.

Though I am a professional violist (i.e. I make money playing the viola), I consider myself an amateur violinist. A couple of years ago I started playing with a group of amateur adults, none of whom had ever played in a string quartet before. Our plan was to play through all of your string quartets in the order they were published. Playing the first violin parts in your string quartets has been my first (and best) experience playing chamber music as a violinist. Some of those first violin parts are really tricky, and it takes a lot of ingenuity to figure out fingerings that work. Some of the solutions, which end up being the ONLY practical solutions, border on silliness. When I finally figure out the left-hand puzzle, I feel like I'm exchanging smiles with you across the centuries and continents. It's nice to know that some things, like the navigation of the violin fingerboard, never change.

Every time we meet to play one of your Quartets it is an adventure! And the adventure becomes more and more exotic and more and more rewarding. Everybody is becoming more familiar with the idiom that you took from being an entertaining pastime for musicians to a vehicle that makes possible the highest level of sophistication in their musical discourse. You have given us musical material that amuses us AND makes us think.

Today we read the F minor Quartet, Opus 20, No. 5, the one with the double fugue and the pastorale Adagio with the extremely florid first violin part. It is our favorite quartet so far, and I imagine that it will remain a favorite forever. I was following the score for the fugue. Some members of this quartet of novices, who are still cutting their quartet teeth (on your quartets), can find it difficult to count rests and come in at the right time. But everybody came in correctly when we read the fugue today. The writing compelled us to do so.

We will play the fugue (and the rest of the Quartet) with a little more tempo when we next meet.

See you in the ether!

Your devoted fan,

Elaine Fine

P.S. Now, after learning Opus 17, and embarking on a study of Opus 20, I have a feeling that Mozart might have been impressed by them as well as the Opus 33 quartets that compelled him to write the set of quartets he dedicated to you. I also have a feeling that Beethoven might have had some fascination for Opus 17, particularly the fifth quartet, the one in G major. The recitative sections of G minor Adagio seem to have "informed" the opening of the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. If, as some imagine, you have some access to him in your version of an after-life, you might point that out to him. Tell him that it is fairly obvious to those of us who play your quartets.

P.P.S. You would laugh if you could see the way your quartets have been numbered and collected. Each quartet holds at least three numbers: the opus, the number according to the first published editions, and the number used by Anthony van Hoboken, who spent from 1934 until 1978 re-cataloging your work.

P.P.P.S Our oldest granddaughter calls my husband (her grandfather) "Papa."

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