Cognitive Dissonance and the Performer's Inner Conflict: A New Perspective on the First Movement of Beethoven's Op. 101

By Sauer, Amanda Stringer | Music Theory Online, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Dissonance and the Performer's Inner Conflict: A New Perspective on the First Movement of Beethoven's Op. 101


Sauer, Amanda Stringer, Music Theory Online


[1] At SMT's November, 2005 meeting in Cambridge, one of the Friday evening sessions was titled "Interacting Interpretive Roles-Performer and Theorist." In the third and final presentation of the night, Robert Hatten worked with a bright, young string quartet of graduate students from New England Conservatory on the third movement ("Cavatina") of Beethoven's Op. 130 quartet.(1) At the start of the session, Hatten told the audience that in fact we would not witness a formal presentation in the traditional sense, but would rather act as spectators for a coaching session. Hatten mentioned that he had practiced this same sort of coaching at his home institution of Indiana University as a guest in the chamber music class of violist Atar Arad. It was unclear from his opening remarks to what degree he believes his coachings differ from those of applied performance faculty.

[2] For the session, Hatten and the quartet worked on the first 27 measures of the movement, putting theory into practice by focusing on the "concept of plentitude" and other semiotic insights laid out in the in the eighth chapter of his book Musical Meaning in Beethoven.(2) His wish was a) to guide the quartet to play the passage in a way which reflected what was happening theoretically and rhetorically in the music, i.e. to demonstrate an early (m. 8) sense of fulfillment which, after this point, is not immediately achieved again, though the music actively searches for it, and b) to accomplish this by speaking to the performers in "plain language." Hatten made it clear not only that had he never worked with the quartet of players, but that the players themselves, while seasoned as an ensemble, had only begun working on the piece ten days earlier. In the context of a "before and after" format (the quartet was asked to play the 27-measure passage at the outset, and then at the conclusion of the session), Hatten asked leading questions of the players. The quartet's answers to these questions ultimately generated a considerable amount of interpretive growth, reflected in the more logical, committed, and convincing "after" performance which ended the session.

[3] The first question asked after Hatten's coaching was directed towards the performers: "What was it like to have this kind of coaching?" The question could have implied that "this kind" of coaching was worlds apart from what actually happens when professional performers (as opposed to theorists) lead this sort of educational experience, and though it might be argued that Hatten's presentation, in fact, was very much like what happens when practicing musicians engage in ensemble coaching,(3) a more provocative question might have been, "What was it like to interpret those kinds of musical gestures?" A movement full of finicky articulative, gestural, and expressive markings cannot be interpretively easy to understand or physically easy to execute. Indeed, much of Beethoven's music-especially that of the late period-demands a certain amount of "reprogramming" for the performer. This reprogramming is necessary because of the seemingly counterintuitive interpretive demands it makes upon the performer. In music of the common-practice era, the thwarting of expectation (and the concomitant building-up of tension) is a fundamental rhetorical and dramatic procedure, but rarely does it create a psychological conflict in the performer to the extent that it does in the late music of Beethoven. The competing desires to follow one's own musical intuition and to obey Beethoven's performance instructions are responsible for this psychological conflict.

[4] Most performers would agree that the psychological dissonance created by these conflicting desires is ultimately transferred to the body; like any stress, it is felt physically. Indeed, the idea that mental stress and other cognitive processes manifest themselves in the physical has been explored by medical researchers, social scientists, and musicians alike. …

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