Academic journal article Intersections

The Loosening Role of Polyphony: Texture and Formal Functions in Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

Academic journal article Intersections

The Loosening Role of Polyphony: Texture and Formal Functions in Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

Article excerpt

Introduction

Mozart wrote the six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, 464, and 465) from 1782 through early 1785, shortly after Mozart had become particularly interested in counterpoint. This interest was prompted by his involvement in 1782 with the music of both J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel, when Mozart attended Baron van Swieten's Sunday afternoon gatherings devoted to the music of these composers. Mozart arranged some of J. S. Bach's fugues for string ensembles and started to write fugues himself-for example, the Fugue in C minor for two pianos, K. 426 (Küster 1996,133).1 The six "Haydn" quartets, published by Artaria in 1785 as op. 10, are the first works of this genre to be composed after this "revolution ... in his creative activity" (Alfred Einstein, quoted by Stanley Sadie 1964, 23). In this essay, I explore the role of counterpoint, for which my preferred term is polyphony, and the interaction between polyphony and formal structure in these quartets.21 show that polyphony acts as a destabilizing force that contributes to the distinction between tight-knit (stable) and loose (unstable) formal categories.

Contrapuntal writing had already had prominence in the genre of the string quartet before Mozart. In general, the fugue retained its importance in the conservative late eighteenth-century Austria, as opposed to other European lands, where fugal writing had gone out of vogue. Haydn's opus 20, for example, contains fugal finales (in nos. 2, 5, and 6).3 Other contemporary composers, such as I. Holzbauer, M. Monn, C. Ordonez, and G. C. Wagenseil, wrote fugues in both quartets and other chamber works, as well as orchestral pieces.4 The eighteenth-century theorist H. C. Koch even argues that "a strict quartet must be in the fugal style" (Mara Parker 2002, 21).5 However, in the works of Mozart's contemporaries, some of which will be analyzed at the end of this paper, movements that are not fully fledged fugues are more often homophonic than polyphonic. Parker (183), who calls the polyphonic quality of quartets a debate, notes that, contrary to a widespread belief, debates are rather rare in the eighteenth-century quartet literature. Furthermore, even when composers do employ polyphony, its role rarely approaches the structural significance it has in Mozart's works. The uniqueness of Mozart's imitative writing lies in the specific kind of interaction he uses between quasi-fugal polyphonic devices and non-fugal forms, such as sonata form, large ternary, and other standardized formal types of the time.

The importance of texture in Classical chamber music, and in the string quartet in particular, has been so widely recognized that one can hardly find a mention of a chamber genre without at least a tangential remark about texture. Several recent studies contribute significantly to the topic of texture in the late eighteenth-century quartets.6 Although some of these studies relate form to texture, this association has not yet been scrutinized to the degree it deserves. For instance, little has been done to propose any clearly defined and consistently found structural role that texture can play along with other musical dimensions such as harmony, tonal design, or rhythm.7 Within the remarkably animated discussion of form in the last couple of decades, texture has certainly played an implicit role, though it has not assumed major significance. In particular, texture influences such notions as Caplin's (1998) evaded cadence, the accompanimental overlap, and premature dominant arrival, James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy's (2006) medial caesura, and William Rothstein's (1989) lead-in.8

The purpose of the present article is to propose that texture does have a structural function as related to form. Relying on Caplin's theory of formal functions, I use his concept of looser formal structure-formal destabilization-to show that the texture of imitative polyphony is a strong indicator of formal loosening. …

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