Academic journal article Notes

The First Professional String Quartet? Reexamining an Account Attributed to Giuseppe Maria Cambini

Academic journal article Notes

The First Professional String Quartet? Reexamining an Account Attributed to Giuseppe Maria Cambini

Article excerpt


This study examines an 1804 essay about string-quartet performance published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, and attributed to the Italian-born and Paris-domiciled composer/violinist Giuseppe Maria Cambini. The essay is frequently cited as evidence of the first professional string quartet, since it includes a detailed account of the rehearsal methods of an ensemble purported to have formed in Tuscany over a six-month period in the mid-1760s, and comprising Boccherini, Nardini, Manfredi, and Cambini as its members.

A closer examination of the evidence reveals that this so-called Tuscan Quartet is unlikely to have existed. The essay appears to be a highly embellished translation of a passing remark from Cambini's earlier Nouvelle methode theorique et pratique pour le violon (ca. 1795), possibly made at the instigation (and with the editorial intervention of) AmZ editor Johann Friedrich Rochlitz.

Although the essay is probably an unreliable source for quartet practices ca. 1765, it offers compelling testimony to an emerging quartet ideology (especially in German-speaking lands) around the time of its publication in the early nineteenth century. It may be among the earliest articulations of several influential ideas about quartets, including (1) the string quartet as an ensemble with stable personnel, (2) string-quartet repertoire as serious concert music demanding detailed rehearsal in advance of a performance for an audience, (3) unity of expression--four players sounding as one--as a goal of such rehearsal, and (4) extensive study and performance of quartets as foundational artistic training for all developing string players.


The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

--L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1)

A telling entry in Beethoven's conversation books, written by the violinist Joseph Mayseder on or around 29 April 1825, might well bring Hartley's memorable aphorism to mind. Mayseder had visited Beethoven to invite him to his upcoming performance of the Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 127. The piece was still quite new, and its premiere one month prior under Mayseder's mentor Ignaz Schuppanzigh had been a great failure. But Mayseder reassured the composer about his own upcoming performance: "It will go well / we have rehearsed it twice." (2) That two rehearsals for such a complex work were sufficient to prepare a concert that was judged successful by Beethoven's nephew, Karl, underscores the point: the practice of string-quartet rehearsals, even for concert performances of difficult repertoire, was only just beginning to emerge in the early decades of the nineteenth century, around the same time that societies for quartet performances were proliferating around Europe. (3)

Much ink has been spilled on the divide between private and public modes of music making, and how the gradual rise of public quartet performances impacted the way quartets were conceived, composed, and played. But scholarly attention has less often been devoted to the gradual emergence of quartet rehearsals that developed with the quartet's migration from the drawing room (its original habitat) to the concert hall. Although the scanty record of private musical activities makes definitive conclusions elusive, quartet playing in the late eighteenth century seems to have been by and large a culture of sight-reading, and many modern ideas about rehearsal have their roots in the early nineteenth century. (4)

Specifically, the notion of a string quartet as an ensemble with stable personnel that meets together over multiple sessions aimed at improving their playing of a particular piece in preparation for future performances to be attended by some attentive listeners--that is, what today we mean by the word rehearsal--seems to find its first articulation in an 1804 essay published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (AmZ) and attributed to the violinist and composer Giuseppe Maria Cambini (1746-1825). …

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