One of the most influential people in my life is violin teacher Eva Gruesser. I studied with her from 2007 to 2012, and her instruction made it possible for me to achieve more than I ever imagined. During my time with her, she was the concertmaster of several orchestras around the world. However, she had previously spent 12 years as the first violinist of the world-renowned Lark Quartet. Her time with the Lark included first prizes at multiple international chamber music competitions, as well as regular performances all around the world.
I recently heard that the Lark Quartet will be disbanding at the end of this year. It appears that this decision is simply because a number of factors – job searching, family commitments, etc. – have made it clear that this is the best course of action for the instrumentalists. In honor of their legacy, I thought it would be fitting for us to hear Haydn’s “Lark” Quartet, as played by the Lark Quartet.
The “Lark” was a product of the peak of Haydn’s career in the 1790s. One of his wealthy benefactors had recently passed away and have left him a significant sum of money. He was therefore able to create his own orchestra and develop more time to composing. This quartet was written or for Joseph Tost, the principal second violinist in his new orchestra. Tost was apparently quite a creative and virtuosic musician, and Haydn wanted to replicate some of his energy and the vivacity in this quartet.
The first movement opens with the song of the lark itself. You will hear this song in the first violin part as the other instrumentalists accompany the theme. The second movement is simply an extension of the first, with the first violin carrying the lark’s song. Historians have suggested that’s Haydn disliked writing these slower movements and used a basic template for them in almost every one of his compositions so that he didn’t have to do as much work. The third movement (based on a German folk tune) is the typical Trio movement, and you will hear the cello and viola starting to take over more of the melodic material. The fourth and final movement, in true Haydn form, is a hornpipe that accentuates sharp rhythms and flying runs. (For you music nerds out there, listen for the switch to D minor for the fugal section in the middle, then up to A major – the dominant key – and back home to D major for the ending. All he is doing is running around the circle of fifths via the dominant and sub-dominant).
One of the distinctive features of Haydn quartets is the constant stream of witty surprises that jump out at the listener. For instance, you might expect the first movement, with its exposition of the lark’s song, to revolve around the first violin part. However, the first violin is constantly being held down by the depth and structure of the cello and viola parts, which provide grounding and an occasional retort. Another example is found in the ending of the first movement; rather than finish with a flourish like his contemporaries would have, Haydn lets the accompaniment instruments finish the piece and tags on the first violin’s lark song as an afterthought.