Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Puzzle of the String Quartet

In his Nineteenth Century Music, Carl Dahlhaus writes:
After Beethoven, string quartets resembled fossil specimens of an extinct genre, despite a few isolated works by composers who either, like Brahms, attempted squarely to face the dilemma posed by Beethoven or, like Smetana, avoided it by lopsidedly favoring subjectivity. (The restoration of the string quartet in our century is one of the strangest chapters of music history.) [op. cit. p. 28]
The "dilemma" that he refers to he described previously as between "subjectivity of expression--as in late Beethoven--and rigorous objectivity of form".

While agreeing with Dahlhaus' characterization, I am a bit puzzled by his reasons. Elsewhere he says "Beethoven's formal designs are individual and unique in the sense that they represent solutions to specific formal problems, no two of which are ever alike ... their thematic material is a function of the form." [p. 34] I understand Dahlhaus' desire to avoid superficial clich├ęs attributing the abrupt decline of the genre after 1830 to social changes or just to the fact that Beethoven offered a challenge so strong to his successors as to stun them into silence. But as Dahlhaus himself sees Beethoven's music as a brilliant synthesis of form and content, I can't quite make sense of the "dilemma" he refers to. It is undeniable that the string quartet became almost moribund for nearly a hundred years, from the last ones Beethoven wrote in the 1820s to the first of the great 20th century string quartets which come from the years around the first World War. I wrote about the string quartet since 1900 here.

But let's get back to the question: what caused the decline of the genre in the 19th century? The string quartet had rather humble origins in some divertimento-like pieces Haydn wrote for himself and some friends to play:


This was music akin to a conversation amongst close friends. Unlike the divertimento proper, it was written more for the players than an audience. By the end of his career, Haydn's quartets were being performed in front of a large public audience and had become both more intense and more grand:


Beethoven took it several steps further and achieved in his last five quartets a kind of distillation of musical expression that composers ever since have despaired of achieving. These quartets, described by Stravinsky as music that will be forever contemporary, contain both simple folk dances and the most intricate polyphony in a remarkable synthesis. As an example of the former, here is the Alla danza Tedesca from the op. 130 quartet:


And as an example of the latter, here is the opening movement of the op. 131 quartet, a fugue:


The first of the successors to Beethoven to write string quartets was Robert Schumann who wrote three, all in his "chamber music year" of 1842.


If we simply subtract Beethoven from music history and see the Schumann quartets as following those of Schubert, they are not bad at all, even though written in rather a rush beginning in June 1842 with the premiere of all three in September of the same year. But given the subtlety and brilliance of what Beethoven managed, it is hard not to notice the often perfunctory blending of form and content in the Schumann. Not to mention the rhythmic dreariness.

It is hard to disagree with Dahlhaus' characterization of Smetana's quartets as "subjective":


Nor those of Brahms as being more in the Beethoven mold:


But I still can't quite accept Dahlhaus' explanation, especially when there is a much simpler one that seems to propose itself. Is it not the case that all the 19th century string quartets are tinged with sentimentality and melodrama? Yes, even those of Brahms? That is what we do not have in the ones by Beethoven. Intense, yes, but never sentimental. I suspect that, as the 19th century was the first era in which the tastes of the middle class really began to have a powerful economic effect on music, the sentimentality we hear is simply what composers needed to include in order to reach their listeners. It was expected, much as a sneering nastiness is expected from hip-hop artists today.

Mind you, some readers might be scratching their heads and saying "what is he talking about? Every string quartet concert I go to ends with one of those dreary 19th century ones and the audience seems to love them." Yes, and the reason is that audiences now are rediscovering their taste for sentimentality!

But I simply propose this as a suggestion. Please feel free to comment!

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