Contrast yields perfection in the Minuet of FJ Haydn's 'Quinten'

Among the famous canons in Franz Joseph Haydn's work is the curiously simple but carefully crafted two-voice canon in the Minuet of the String Quartet, Op. 76, No. 2, "Fifths" (ca. 1796). What makes this movement so outstanding is the way in which the canon is crouched into the composite ternary form, and the perfection with which the trio serves as a foil to the unflinchingly canonic minuet. The feat of forming the trio from a continuous and unbroken canon requires compromise in the overall compostion. Unpacking the relationship between the minuet and trio shows Haydn's keen awareness of the effect of his materials and his ability to contrast them, offset them, make them appear larger, smaller, more or less extreme in various compositional dimensions. With the Trio, there could scarcely be a more perfect insertion of such a simple canonic texture into a classical quartet.

The canon is part of a Minuet-Trio, a three-part or 'ternary' form that is traditionally used as the third movement of a symphony, sonata or string quartet in the works of the classical masters. First the Minuet is played, then the trio, and finally the Minuet returns, these three events forming a ternary (three part) form, and together, the Minuet-Trio's ABA form. In the Minuet-Trio of the Quinten quartet, the Minuet consists of a two-voice canon, and the non-canonic Trio provides contrast to the Minuet.

The use of contrast in a composition's form has an important dramatic function, to be sure, but an essential part of a composer's skill is to be able to assess what might be termed the 'limitations' of one formal section, in order that the contrast provided by the other be both focused and effective. When handled well, as it is so unfailingly done in the works of the masters, perfection is born of imperfection.

In this light, and with the understanding that to speak of imperfection or limitation is not an insult to the composer, but rather an analysis of form, with an understanding that only through limitation can an imperfect part contribute to a perfect whole through dramatic contrast, let us list some of the characteristics or even limitations of the canonic Minuet only in order to show how the composer addresses each:

  1. There are only two voices, albeit doubled, and they are contrapuntal and equivalent; no full triad is heard.

  2. The range is limited, though not exceedingly so – not typical for a Haydn quartet.

  3. There are no registrally exposed gestures, but only overlapping gestures between registers.

  4. In keeping with contrapuntal tradition, the dynamic level is consistently forte throughout.

  5. The gestures begin with a deliberate character which persists throughout.

  6. The persistent imitation tends to fall into oscillation.

  7. The predictability of the imitation tends toward rhythmic monotony with each measure.

  8. There is no significant syncopation.

  9. Despite a brief motion to the relative major in the second section, there is little variety of key center in comparison with a typical Joseph Haydn movement.

  10. The canon breathes, and this causes irregular phrase lengths as the echoes are heard. Phrases tend to be longer than the typical four measures in length partly for similar reasons.

The threat that a typical Haydn trio could easily outshine the minuet and expose these features is easy to imagine, and it necessarily constrains the best composition of the Trio. While contrast within a movement lends robustness to that movement, contrast on the level of another movement such as the Trio, has the danger of casting the contrasting Minuet in an unfavorable light. It is Haydn's masterful command of these contrasts that makes the canon so enjoyable, natural and yes comfortable within the overall composite form.

It is tempting to imagine that Haydn made a checklist like the one above when conceiving of the Trio. And as with any checklist, the satisfaction of each item is what is paramount, not the physical existence of an actual list. Yet, conceived as a prescription, the list would be stated in the affirmative rather than the negative.

  1. Use homophonic texture with audible voice leading in at least 4 voices; employ unisono.

  2. Allow for the free range of the first violin; let us hear the cello's A string.

  3. Allow some registrally isolated gestures to be heard without overlap.

  4. Use contrasts of dynamic level.

  5. Break away from shorter, deliberate microgestures with rhythmic extension of figures.

  6. Use a greater variety of harmonic rhythm, exploring harmonic rhythm that would be prohibited by the canon: pedal tones, multimeasure chords; anticipate some changes of harmony having them fall on the upbeat. Follow a common phrase model.

  7. Use extended repetition at a shorter time value to obscure downbeats.

  8. Syncopate! Address the anacrusis (pickup) with changes of harmony.

  9. Use balanced phrases to group larger swaths of time.

  10. Explore key areas other than tonic and relative major.

The eleventh and twelfth imperatives are as with any ternary pair:

11. The Minuet and Trio must belong together; they must be cut from the same cloth.

12. The Trio may not overwhelm the Minuet. It must allow the Minuet to sound fresh on its return. In some sense the Trio must instead 'underwhelm'.

Let us explore how Haydn addresses these ten goals one by one as we keep the extra two imperatives in mind.

1-4. Textural Variety and Fresh Sound

While the canon presents no full unisons or triads, the Trio presents both in its first few measures.

While the canon offers little but staccato quarter notes and imitated slurred eighths, the Trio's A section gives the simultaneous contrast of staccato accompaniment and bowed eighth notes in the first violin. The goal of expanding the instruments' ranges is reached first by allowing the cello to use its A string, having been released from its contrabass duty. The relatively wide register built into the canon's consistent octave doublings allow contrast in the Trio as a simple, close-position, D-minor triad sounds fresh in measure 41. Subsequently, the Minuet's range is exceeded as the violin climbs higher and higher, finally into tenth position, playing a high D at the very end of the Trio.

Also fresh is the sound of entirely exposed registers of the octave pairs from the Minuet reappearing in measures 62-65 of the Trio, now featuring the canon's octave texture only long enough to evoke its memory without belaboring its measure-for-measure rhythmic alternation. As that rhythmic imitation is briefly recalled to memory, it is presented as a contrast between violin octaves and full-quartet chords.

To be sure, the dynamic contrasts in the Trio provide an additional textural and sonic contrast to the Minuet.

5-9. Extended Gestures, Rhythmic Variety & Extended Harmonic Motion

The extension of the D-minor triad over two measures followed by a D-major triad presents a stark contrast that would not be possible in the canon. Now that it is permitted to be heard, it presents both rhythmic and a modal freshness. With respect to the Minuet, the novel texture created by the first violin's climbing period is reinforced by its rhythmic continuation in eighth notes for eight measures. It is finally free to make such a journey.

The organization of the A section of the Trio (measures 39-52) is into two parts, each of which defies the textural phrasing persistent throughout the canonic Minuet: First, a six-measure stasis expresses a developing tonic sonority proceeding at two-meaure intervals, first in octaves, then as a minor triad, and finally as an expression of the parallel major tonic triad. This stasis, brilliantly avoided in the canon itself is much more effectively employed here as a contrast to the canon's measure-by-measure harmonic motion. The continuous pedal combined with slower harmonic motion provides marked contrast to the Minuet.

Second, eight bars follow, featuring the first violin's climbing eighth note period. The first of these two four-measure phrases continues over a tonic pedal, and the second presents a modulating phrase with an authentic cadence in the dominant key of A.

To theorize about what constitutes the rhythm of music's prototypical four-measure phrase is to conceive of four harmonies across four imaginary measures of music. The first measure introduces the tonic harmony, provides a contextual pre-dominant harmony, and cadences using a dominant and tonic harmony. The conclusion of the motion on the downbeat of the fourth measure creates a metrical asymmetry. This emphasis on the downbeat of the fourth bar is an important part of the experience of finality in the expectation of the audience of a string quartet. But this asymmetry is difficult to achieve in a canon such as that in the Minuet. The best that can be done in the Minuet is to arrive on the dominant chord on that fourth bar, and allow that harmony to echo. The result is an elision the resolution of whose rhythmic compromise is the focus of the canon's final cadence which arrives a measure early in order to allow the echo to fall in a satisfying place in the phrase rhythm. In contrast, the freedom afforded by the Trio is exploited by allowing the full cadence in the dominant key to fall squarely on the downbeat of the phrase's fourth measure (measure 52), and is further satisfied by the first real rest of the Minuet-Trio. The textural value of this rest must not be overlooked. There is a corresponding rest at the end of the Trio even as the Da Capo occurs attacca.

Syncopation appears in the Trio in ways subtle enough to avoid causing the canon to sound too stiff on its return. First, the extended pause that separates the Minuet from the Trio easily obscures the metric role of the first two notes of the Trio, and the meter is most intentionally obscured in a way that acknowledges the metric ambiguity at the very opening of the Minuet. But here its metric resolution is much more profound – worthy of Beethoven – as each change in harmony, dynamic level and texture continues the misleading notion that the third beat of each measure is a downbeat. The metric resolution occurs with the changes of harmony in the final phrase, making the cadence in measure 52 emphatically meaningful.

9. Balanced Extended Gestures and Extended Harmonic Motion

In contrast to the one-measure delay of response dictated by the canon's interval of imitation, the even balance of two phrases into a period (measures 45-52) refocuses the scale of comparison from a single measure in the canon to a four-measure unit in the Trio. Thus the measure-by-measure motion is contrasted in two ways by the A section of the Trio: first by greater stasis and second by greater motion.

10. Fresh Tonality

The signal change in mode from minor to major as well as the continued mixture provide for greater tonal variety in the Trio as the major tonality makes modulation to the dominant more tonally seamless, and the more distant tonal center allows for a fresh point of repose in the bass. Both of these are emphasized by the repeats of the A section of the Trio as the process happens again, tracing a middleground motion not having been available to the canonic process.

In formal answer to the repeated tonic chord at the beginning of the Trio, the repeated A-major triad at the beginning of the B section is heard as the tonic of the secondary key, but by degrees is contextualized as a dominant chord by the time of the textural change at measure 62 where the single note A is heard, and answered by a resolution to D-minor recalling the canon's tonality and texture.

11-12. Imperative Integration

While not eclipsing the Minuet, Haydn has taken care to allow the Minuet to shine on its return. Although significant contrast is offered by the Trio, one hears nothing boldly new at the opening of the Trio. The beginning of the trio hints at continued imitation: the violins are still in octaves! The lower strings enter two measures later, with rhythmic imitation but at the same time allowing for the homophony that is fresh in measure 41.

Menuetto Da Capo

As the canonic Minuet returns following the Trio, it feels welcome. The single-measure imitative relationship is once again fresh. The minor mode, the octave texture, the melody are all fresh. Anticipations stressing beat 3 throughout the Trio have also allowed the strict meter of the Minuet to avoid a sense of excessive rhythmic regularity. On second hearing, with its octaves, mode, melody, deliberate meter, the Minuet has a heaviness and a profundity that was absent in the more playful Trio.

The Canon Itself

With so much attention to the relationship between the Minuet and Trio, it has been all to easy to ignore what is successful and masterful about the canon.

Having pointed out the oscillatory nature of the imitation, it is necessary to point out that Haydn has done a masterful job of avoiding that natural tendency. The canon begins by tracing through a tonic triad, and it would be all too easy never to leave that triad, but the triad's fifth, the A, when it is reached in the lower part, the upper part is free to reharmonize the A with the leading tone, C#. Likewise, Haydn wastes no time, reintepreting the D as part of a tonicization of the A chord (measures 4-5). The same strategy is used to reach the dominant chord in the relative major in measures 12 through 15. Generally speaking, the strategy of sounding ambiguously incomplete chords allows the harmonic reinterpretation on which the progression relies. Because the C# introduced in measure four is the third of the dominant triad, and an essential tone in a dominant harmony, it is not so simple a matter to abandon it, and that does not happen until the open fifth in measure 10. This at least paints a picture of the process of composing such a canon.

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