Haydn: String Quartet Op 54 No. 2

Franz Joseph Haydn (1723-1809)
Op 54 No.2 (1788)
Adagio – Presto

franz-joseph-haydnThese quartets are part of a set of six (Op 54 & Op 64) published in 1790. They were dedicated to Johan Tost, the principal second violin at Esterháza from 1783-1788.

Haydn was good to his musicians, often writing pieces featuring them as compensation for good work, or as a way to lure talented musicians to the extreme isolation of Esterháza. Tost was known in Vienna as well and Mozart wrote his last two string quintets for him.

Haydn trained as a singer and although competent at the keyboard, he was not a participant in the improvisatory contests that were fashionable in music circles at the time. He composed methodically, creating a sketch, then a more elaborate outline and then the full score. Even though he was developing the idea of thematische Arbeit, any violist will point out that the scoring of this quartet still leans heavily towards the first violin.

The reason for this is more practical than anything. In the late 18th century, quartets were still played almost exclusively by amateurs at home. The likelihood of there being two skilled violinists and a competent violist was slim, so composers catered to the reality of one skilled violinist, one who was competent and another who was learning and would therefore play the viola.

The pauses in the first movement are significant because they are a new idea. Baroque and classical music is essentially continuous, meaning once the movement starts, the tempo is steady and there is generally music the whole way through. Although it doesn’t seem so revolutionary to 21st century ears, the silence would have caught the audience off guard. This is an effect that Beethoven went on to use in his third symphony, string quartet Op 59 No.2 and several piano sonatas.

The second movement is a bit of a curiosity when compared to Haydn’s usual slow movement style. It’s reflective, introverted and most peculiarly, improvisatory. The three lower voices play a hymn over which the first violin has a meandering obbligato part. There is no tune as such, and the obbligato sounds very much like it was made up on the spot. Haydn improvised his solo parts as a chorister at St Stephen’s, Vienna and one can easily imagine this movement as a sort of vocalise for treble and organ.

Although scored a Minuet, the third movement more closely resembles the Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that was wildly popular in the last two decades of the 18th century and would eventually become the Viennese waltz. A proper minuet is an upper class dance and is therefore slow and stately, without the strong waltz rhythm. This rather genteel movement ends with an uncharacteristically exuberant unison scale passage.

Hadyn was fond of the unexpected and he and Beethoven shared a wicked sense of humour. The movement structure of a quartet fast, slow, fast, faster, was codified during Haydn’s lifetime but in this case, he dispenses with the rulebook entirely.

There are really only 32 bars of Presto material in the entire movement and for all intents and purposes, this is the typical slow movement the quartet is missing. A fortissimo dominant seventh chord after the Presto section indicates that a rollicking coda is about to begin but instead Haydn reintroduces the slow opening and the quartet ends with a gentle cadence.


  1. Hey Marcia,

    I did a Google search for “Haydn String Quartets’ and your wonderful article came up…maybe you can tell me how the Prussian Quartets got their name?

    Warm regards,


  2. Paul

    I love the Opus 54 quartets, and your analysis of this one is nicely done. Just a slight correction: There are twelve “Tost” quartets. Op. 54 and 55 are the first six, and Op. 64 contains another six.

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