Haydn’s String Quartet Op 76, No 3, ‘Emperor’


I HAVE the feeling that Haydn is a bit under-rated these days. Maybe it is because he did not die tragically young like Mozart or Schubert, or have the misfortunes of Beethoven. However in his time Haydn was the most celebrated composer in Europe and is known as the ‘Father of the Symphony’ and ‘Father of the String Quartet’.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), an Austrian, was about 65 when he wrote the six string quartets Opus 76 in 1797/8. They are celebrated for their innovation of form.

My favourite complete quartet is No 4, the Sunrise, played here by the American Dover Quartet.

However the best known part of the set of quartets is the second movement of No 3, entitled Emperor.

Haydn had recently been to England and got to know God Save the King. He returned to Austria and discussed with contacts the idea that Austria, too, should have a national anthem. As a result the poet Lorenz Haschka was commissioned to write the words and Haydn wrote the music. Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser(God save Francis the Emperor), or Kaiserhymne(The Emperor’s Hymn) was first performed on Emperor Francis II’s 29th birthday, February 12, 1797.

These are the words of the first verse:

Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, unsern guten Kaiser Franz!
Lange lebe Franz der Kaiser, in des Glückes hellstem Glanz!
Ihm erblühen Lorbeerreiser, wo er geht, zum Ehrenkranz!
Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, unsern guten Kaiser Franz!

God save Francis the Emperor, our good Emperor Francis!
Long live Francis the Emperor in the brightest splendour of bliss!
May laurel branches bloom for him, wherever he goes, as a wreath of honour.
God save Francis the Emperor, our good Emperor Francis!

Later that year, while Haydn was working on a commission for six string quartets from the Hungarian Count Joseph Erdödy, he had the idea of using the Emperor’s Hymn as the slow movement for the third quartet, with four variations, each involving the melody played by one member of the quartet.

Here it is played by the Veridis Quartet:

A couple of years later Haydn wrote a piano version.

By all accounts it was Haydn’s favourite work. As he aged he became physically unable to compose, though the ideas never stopped coming. His biographer Albert Christoph Dies wrote that Haydn said: ‘Usually musical ideas are pursuing me, to the point of torture, I cannot escape them, they stand like walls before me. If it’s an allegro that pursues me, my pulse keeps beating faster, I can get no sleep. If it’s an adagio, then I notice my pulse beating slowly. My imagination plays on me as if I were a clavier.’

In the last few years of his life he would console himself by playing the Emperor’s Hymn on the piano.

His servant Johann Elssler reported that just after midday on May 26, 1809, Haydn played the tune three times ‘with such expression and taste, well! that our good Papa was astonished about it himself and said he hadn’t played the Song like that for a long time and was very pleased about it.’

That evening Haydn became unwell. He died five days later.

The Emperor’s Hymn has been quoted by many other composers since. Here is an orchestration by Tchaikovsky believed to have been written in 1874 for a visit to Russia by the Austrian Emperor.

Here it forms the basis for Clara Schumann’s piano impromptu Souvenir de Vienne.

Notably, under the name Austria, it was paired with John Newton’s hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, which I wrote about here.

Long after Haydn’s death, in 1841, the German linguist and poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote the lyrics of Das Lied der Deutschen(The Song of the Germans), which became the German national anthem in 1922.

Here is the full Haydn Emperor quartet:

And here is the score:

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