The String Quartets of Joseph Haydn

By November, Nancy | Notes, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The String Quartets of Joseph Haydn


November, Nancy, Notes


HAYDN STUDIES The String Quartets of Joseph Haydn. By Floyd and Margaret Grave. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. [x, 382 p. ISBN 0-19-517357-0. $65.] Music examples, tables bibliographic references, index.

In 1990 Floyd and Margaret Grave published an indispensable handbook for Haydn scholars: Franz Joseph Haydn: A Guide to Research (New York: Garland). With this latest book, they have produced yet another comprehensive and thoroughly documented addition to the Haydn literature. "To undertake a study of Haydn's string quartets," they observe at the outset, "is to enter a domain of music scholarship whose byways far exceed the scope of a single book" (p. 3). However, the Graves successfully narrow their field by focusing on detailed analyses that foreground opus-level observations and musical connections. Chapters on "Points of Departure" ("The Repertory," "Genre and Character," and "Texture, Ensemble Technique, and Sonority"), and "Formal Perimeters" lead to studies of each opus, most of which are allotted a full chapter. These background chapters prove essential, given the authors' twofold aim, in the ensuing discussion, of accounting for the individuality of each opus group while drawing out the repertoire's "constant elements, variables, and miscellaneous norms" (p. 25). In light of several recent critiques of traditional evolutionary narratives of the string quartet, which are cited here, the authors are wise in their decision to address the opus groups "on their own terms," and to attempt to avoid assumptions about stylistic progression.

Signs of the Graves' bibliographic acumen are manifest. The text is meticulously referenced, directing the reader towards much of the relevant recent literature on the subject. They acknowledge directly that their work complements important recent studies in the field, such as those by William Drabkin on op. 20 (A Reader's Guide to Haydn's Early String Quartets [Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000]) and W. Dean Sutcliffe on op. 50 (Haydn: String Quartets, Op. 50 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992]). There are also references and citations from many of the relevant primary sources; these form the basis of sections within the later chapters on the works' genesis, publication, and reception. Haydn's shrewd dealings with his publishers, as evidenced in contemporary correspondence, make for particularly fascinating reading. Presumably, and a little unfortunately, the book went to press too early to include mention of Mara Parker's invaluable new handbook, The String Quartet: A Research and Information Guide (Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2005).

Perhaps the main contribution in the Graves' study is their discussion of large-scale integrative elements in Haydn's quartets; indeed, the topic could have been more overtly thematized. A significant thread in their narrative is what we might call Haydn's inter-opus "meta-discourse" in the string quartets, whereby he returned, in later works, to ideas explored in previous sets. Especially compelling is their reading of op. 17 as a critique of op. 9, one that is "variously challenging, destabilizing, or indulging in ironic commentary, while at the same time building on its precedents" (p. 169). The specific case study of op. 17, no. 4 as a critique of op. 9, no. 4 is typical of the detailed, thought-provoking analyses that one finds throughout this book. Occasionally there are readings that are somewhat problematic: with respect to op. 20, for example, can one really speak of the cello's "liberation from standard bassline duty" (p. 184, my italics)? Surely this verges on traditional, teleological assumptions about string quartet history and genre ideals. Perhaps a better approach would be to consider Haydn's manipulation of string quartet roles in the first movement of op. 20, no. 2 as "meta-discourse" on these roles.

Elsewhere in the chapter on op. 20, the authors provide a broadly conceived reading of the works' integrative forces as they arise through disintegrative rhetorical tendencies. …

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