The Cambridge History of Nineteenth-Century Music

By Jim Samson | Go to book overview
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The invention of tradition

An imagined past

Whenever I was in Berlin, I would seldom miss Möser's quartetevenings. For me, such artistic presentations were always the most intelligible forum for appreciating instrumental music, in which one heard four reasonable people conversing, as it were, believed their discourse to be profitable and became acquainted with the individuality of the instruments. Goethes Briefe Band IV: Briefe der Jahre 1821–1832. Textkritisch durchgesehen und mit Anmerkungen versehen von Karl Robert Mandelkow (Hamburg, 1967), no. 1443.1

Goethe's letter to Carl Friedrich Zelter (9 November 1829) is sometimes cited as an idealisation of the Classical string quartet, in which this genre is treated as a musical embodiment of civilised Enlightenment conversation between intellectual peers, the 'thread' of the conversation passing effortlessly through the entire musical ensemble. In other respects Goethe's comment sheds light upon the relationship between early Romantic instrumental music specifically chamber music in this context and its immediate Classical past. The evocation of an ideal mode of Enlightenment conversation suggests a nostalgia for a past, even if that past were nothing but an imagined construction (that is, one of many such possible pasts), in relation to which the early Romantic present might be situated. Although he mentions no specific event, either public or private, nor even a specific repertory, it is clear enough that what Goethe had in mind was one of a series of quartet performances organised in Berlin by Karl Möser, at first informally, as an outgrowth of a tradition of chamber and orchestral concerts he had initiated in 1812, and continued on a more permanent footing from the mid-1820s. Möser's quartet concerts rapidly became an established feature of Berlin musical life in the early nine

Wär[e] ich in Berlin, so würde ich die Möserischen Quartettabende selten versäumen. Dieser Art Exhibitionen waren mir von jeher von der Instrumentalmusik das Verständlichste, man hört vier vernünftige Leute sich untereinander unterhalten, glaubt ihren Diskursen etwas abzugewinnen und die Eigentümlichkeit der Instrumente kennenzulernen.


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