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About this Piece

At the beginning of 1790 Haydn was visiting Vienna, where, among other delights, he heard a performance of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and was arranging string quartet parties for his wealthy friend Maria Anna von Genzinger. In February, however, his leave was over and he had to return to isolated Eszterháza Castle, where he was Kapellmeister to the Esterházy court, well-treated by his employers, and as productive – and famous – a composer as the world had ever seen.

But despite the freedom to leave the castle almost at will and with as gifted a contingent of musicians, with close friends among them, as he could want at his disposal, he was still an employee. Thus his letter to Frau von Genzinger after his return to Eszterháza: “Here I sit in my wilderness – almost without human society, full of the memories of the glorious past. When will those days return? [This “past” amounted to a matter of weeks.] He was, quite simply, feeling sorry for himself: he had tasted the greater world and was “back on the job,” 30 years in the same magnificent place. A year later, however, his enlightened employer, Prince Nicolaus, died, whereupon Nicolaus’ troglodytic son, Anton, disbanded the court musical establishment. Haydn was to all intents and purposes a free man. He received a reasonably generous pension, some commissions for masses to be celebrated on the princess’ name day and, most importantly, he didn’t have to wait to display his genius on the widest stage possible. In short order London impresario Johann Peter Salomon commissioned from the 58-year-old composer what would be his crowning orchestral achievement, the 12 so-called “London” Symphonies.

During roughly the same period – beginning at Eszterháza and continuing in Vienna, where he had long kept a pied à terre – Haydn was working on his six Opus 64 Quartets, dedicated, as were his sets of three quartets each, Opp. 54 and 55, to Johann Tost, who had been a violinist in Haydn’s court orchestra. Tost was also a dealer in musical manuscripts, including some that were not his to sell but had slipped into the Esterházy library without being catalogued. In 1789 Haydn gave the Opp. 54 and 55 as well the Symphonies Nos. 88 and 89 to Tost to sell to a publisher in Paris, in which task he succeeded. Tost, who was also not averse to selling works by minor composers as “true Haydn,” would in his spare time pursue rich widows, one of whom he married and with whom he ran a successful Vienna textile business after giving up being a practicing musician.

The most celebrated component of the Op. 64 quartets is the Fifth, in D, the so-called “Lark” of which Richard Wigmore in his valuable Pocket Guide to Haydn writes: “The first movement’s unforgettable, winged melody [ergo the “Lark” sobriquet] high on the first violin’s E-string, is played as a soaring descant to the pawky, staccato march for the three lower instruments that had opened the proceedings.” The theme returns in several guises throughout the movement. The slow movement is a poignant meditation, while the wittily danceable minuet is interrupted by one of Haydn’s earthy trios. The finale is a splendidly light-fingered, hectic hubbub that has been likened to the British sailors' dance, the hornpipe. 

- Herbert Glass