Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"At Times Even Homer Nods Off": Heinrich Christoph Koch's Polemic against Joseph Haydn

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

"At Times Even Homer Nods Off": Heinrich Christoph Koch's Polemic against Joseph Haydn

Article excerpt

I. Exordium

[1] The writings of Heinrich Christoph Koch have been a fixture of music theory literature since the 1970s. In Germany it was Carl Dahlhaus and Wolfgang Budday and in the English-speaking world it was primarily Leonard G. Ratner, Nancy K. Baker and Elaine Sisman who awakened the interest in Koch.(1) This interest centered around the concept of "punctuation form" that is expressed in Koch's work and that offered an alternative to the 19th century's thematic concept of form, which was viewed with growing skepticism. The idea that musical form is articulated through a sequence of cadences and caesuras, like the punctuation of an oration, is a fixture in the theoretical and aesthetic literature of the 18th century that can be found in nearly every compositional treatise of the time.(2) In this respect, Koch's treatise Versuch einer Anleitung zur Komposition(3) is completely in line with the theoretical and educational tradition of its time. Both the thoroughness of Koch's presentation and the fact that Koch repeatedly illustrated the concept of punctuation through the compositions of Joseph Haydn earned Koch's Versuch a special status as a basis for "historically informed" analyses of the works of Haydn and other composers of the 18th century. This re-evaluation of Koch's theory opened up many new perspectives on the music of the 18th century, some of which have not yet been fully explored to this day. But it is imperative with any analytical method to reflect on the appropriateness and relevance of the results it yields. This question as it pertains to Koch and Haydn is not answered merely by the fact that they were contemporaries.

[2] Koch spent nearly his entire life in and around Rudolstadt, a small, central German court: His awareness of musical developments in the European capitals in the latter half of the 18th century was limited and belated. A contemporary of Koch already highlighted this problematic aspect in a review of the Versuch: "We only regret that Mr. K. lives in a place where he perhaps seldom has the opportunity to see new and unusual pieces and even more seldom has the opportunity to hear good music and masterpieces."(4) Koch was not isolated from the continuous expansion and gradual acceptance of the works of Austrian composers in northern and central Germany during the last third of the 18th century, but the fundamental paradigm of his writings is the musical style of his environment, especially composers from Halle, Gotha, Dresden and Berlin such as Hiller, Hasse, Benda and Graun.(5) The claim that "Koch offers us a way of discussing Classical Forms entirely in accordance with the compositional practice of the time"(6) and the comment that Koch's writings "closely followed practice"(7) and are "grounded in the repertory of the day,"(8) though not incorrect, must be differentiated according to the non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous when applied to Haydn:(9) The "compositional practice of the time" and the "repertory of the day" in Koch's environment were simply not "entirely in accordance" with the "compositional practice" and "repertory of the day" in Haydn's environment. Further differences stem from the fact that even the most recent Haydn example cited by Koch in his Versuch was over 20 years old. This time lag is significant given the rapid pace at which Viennese music developed between 1760 and 1800. The fact that Koch's compositional treatise was intended for beginners presents a further difficulty, as his theory and musical examples are selected and prepared for their educational and systematic aspects. Another problem is Koch's core attitude of conservatism, which is particularly evident in his polemic essay "Ueber den Modegeschmack in der Tonkunst"(10) but is expressed in many parts of the Versuch as well. Seen in the context of his immediate environment, Koch may well have been entirely representative of many aspects of contemporary common practice. …

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