The task of this exercise is to analyse the different textures in the second movement of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 76 No. 3, known as the ‘Emperor’.
To begin, the movement is structured as theme with four variations. The theme is Haydn’s own hymn God Save Emperor Franz, harmonized in four parts of the string quartet. The texture here is homophonic, with the hymn being played in the first violin.
In the first variation, the theme is situated in the second violin, accompanied by fast arpeggiated first violin with semiquaver notes that contrast the slow notes of the hymn. Personally, the texture here reminds me of the floral organum – the hymn notes are like cantus firmus on top of which the other part provides elaborate floral passages.
Next, the theme is played by the cello in the second variation, on top of which the other three parts add free contrapuntal layers in long notes. This texture is very Renaissance-like, reminding of motets of Palestrina and other composers we looked at in the first part of the unit.
In the third variation, viola plays the hymn, with the other parts entering separately, creating moments of two-part, three-part and finally, four-part contrapuntal texture that often contains canonic echoes. The treatment is again in free counterpoint.
In the final variation, all the voices start at the same time, with the theme brought back to the first violin, this time in the higher register. There is an interesting blend between homophonic and contrapuntal textures, with the distinction almost blurred. What I find especially exhilarating is how approaching the end, the whole melodic structure becomes increasingly chromatic, introducing a new tension before softly resolving into the final cadence.
Overall, I really enjoyed listening to this movement of Haydn’s quartet, which was like a journey to me. I think it’s really special in its construction of textures that honor the previous polyphonic traditions – such as the organum-like first variation and the free Renaissance-like counterpoint found in the other variations. Approaching the final notes, these are blurred into the modern homophony and the chromaticism by which Haydn brings his hymn back into the musical reality of his contemporary era of classicism.