Part 3 - Conversation


Haydn and the Art of (Theatrical) Conversation

If you go to a quartet concert and there is a piece by Haydn on the menu, it is more than likely that a programme note will refer to the music’s conversational qualities. If there is also something by Beethoven, the notes will probably reference the fact that he fundamentally advanced the genre, turning a private, conversational language into a more serious, concert-dwelling one. In a way, the performance acts out this neat historical narrative, illustrating the string quartet’s transition from private chamber to public concert hall.

These sorts of historical programmes, offering surveys of particular genres and styles, were popularised by Joseph Joachim in the nineteenth century[1]. Unsurprisingly, the quartet concert has enjoyed a long and fruitful partnership with this construction: not only does the genre offer an appealing historical story, it also makes great use of the idea of ‘classics’ – those great works that act as important milestones, breakthrough moments in the genre’s progressive development. It allows listeners to make connections, contrasts and contexts between pieces: who was influenced by whom? What does one composer’s language bring to the genre as a whole? Who were the revolutionaries? Which composers understand the spirit of ‘true quartets’, and which had to struggle a little more to find it?

What interests me is that the job of illustrating changes in social or historical setting is not confined to programme notes, but can be – and often is – done through performance style. In other words, these grand narratives are also acted out by the expressive approaches of the players, on top of any features of ‘the music itself’ (i.e. scores). A good example of this is the idea that Beethoven’s quartets must clearly be played in a fundamentally different way to Haydn’s (for reasons quite apart from any differences in difficulty!). It's possible that these historical programmes helped to generate the now familiar concept of ‘appropriate style’ – the idea that each composer has a very particular language – because bringing this out helps to situate each piece within these grand narratives. If all the music you make is new, there is really no need to make big stylistic differences in the genres you work in. Pop music is a good example of this, especially when the artist writes and performs their own material. But when most of the music is old, and exists in a sort of museum culture, the function of a performer significantly changes.


Lots of quartet players are big Haydn enthusiasts, because there is something about the way he writes for the combination that is incredibly rewarding and satisfying to play. His scores have an amazing knack of enabling interaction, risk and spontaneity – sometimes you even feel as though he’s in the room directing proceedings himself. And so, in performance, the idea that Haydn is “players’ music” is something that can a group can use in order to enhance the narrative of development found in many concert programmes. At the time, interaction between players was one of the main reasons for the quartets’ popularity and commercial success. At the risk of simplifying a very complicated topic, one might say that their conversational aesthetic chimed with the values of the Enlightenment[2].

As I’ve mentioned on these pages before, we know that before around 1800, scores functioned much more like a tool than an object. Written notes did not encode an external truth, but were a sort of shorthand that enabled music-making; the act was the most important thing. This implies a significantly different notion of ownership to the one we are used to. Instead of the piece belonging primarily to the composer (and his unique, individual voice), the players had an essential role in actually creating the music, through their shared language and conventions. And so we can see that in the past there were quite different ways of thinking about the relationship between composers and performers. Much of the time the distinction didn’t even exist; being a musician simply implied you were trained in both.

Looking at Haydn’s quartets now, the score and its player-oriented style seems to offer ‘interpretive flexibility’, or some variant of this. But even this language betrays a relatively recent inheritance! The whole idea of parallel ‘interpretations’ of musical works actually dates from as recently as the nineteenth century - it doesn't appear until the 1840s. It has proved to be an incredibly resilient formulation, especially when paired with modern concert culture, and is routinely applied to earlier music that was never conceived in such a way. (Laurence Dreyfus has described how metaphors of execution, delivery, implementation and others all thrived for many years before the arrival of interpreters; for more on this see Many aspects of musical culture have combined to obscure these alternative philosophies of music making, such as the language we use to talk about scores, historical programming, the idea of the ‘classics’, and the concert hall setting itself.


We are left with quite a big contradiction within the string quartet genre, and especially concerning Haydn. On the one hand we have the conversational, improvisatory, performer-led ideology of the past, and on the other we have the historical, work-based, composer-led ideology of the modern classical concert. This is exacerbated by the fact that Haydn occupies a special place: he was the ‘father figure’, the composer who gave birth to the quartet, without whom it would never have reached such lofty heights. Whether this is historically true is hardly important: classical music loves an origin story! What I mean to say is that the mythological, romantic view of the composer has probably had an important role to play in determining how his quartets sound and how they are thought about. As the starting point for a canonic genre, these pieces are now well and truly aligned with the 'interpretation' formula, whether we like it or not[3].

Performers, then, are faced with an interesting sort of balancing act. On the one hand, a quartet must demonstrate that they understand the conversational character of Haydn’s compositional language, so as to act out the origin story effectively. On the other, they must serve the composer and the notation, and his (or her) wider place in music history. And so although the option of performing these scores in a sort of ‘open’, exploratory manner obviously still exists, in reality it is tempered by the much more powerful nineteenth century ideologies of works, fidelity to composers, and the performer as interpreter. Not only that; quartets are now so well rehearsed, and the levels of scrutiny so high, that the only real solution is to give the impression of the ‘Haydnesque conversation’ without actually conversing; it is just too risky in a presentational context.

As a result, what we hear in the modern performance of Haydn is really a theatrical conversation. Mastery of ‘Haydn’s style’ has been one of the big hoops for quartets to jump through for quite a few generations now[4]. What exactly this means is anybody’s guess, but it is safe to say that it is a modern – and therefore conveniently flexible – invention. Historically, of course, there is no way of knowing what the quartets actually sounded like when performed in Haydn’s day, and the evidence of early recordings should make us quite sceptical about the capacity of words to point us towards it.

What has sprung up around Haydn and the genre, however, is a fascinating combination of origin myth, historical programming, and a sort of ‘affinity culture’ among performers and listeners. All of these are arguably sustained by institutions that have their roots in nineteenth century classicism. Meanwhile, Haydn as spontaneous conversation can still occasionally be heard in small, less public spaces, like string players’ living rooms. These are practically the only places where the whole notion of ‘interpretation’ can actually be forgotten, in favour of conversations that the players genuinely own. For all the importance of ‘conversation’ to the genre, then, it still occupies a relatively marginal place in performance; whether that will change in the future remains to be seen!



[1] Joachim has already appeared so many times in these blogs that I scarcely need to repeat how important a figure he was in forging modern concert ideals!

[2] One particularly interesting strand of this is that the idea of a quartet sounding as ‘one voice’, which became such an absolute aim later on, wasn’t attached to the genre (at least in writing) until around 1804 at the earliest. And from the recordings I’ve talked about already, we can see that it was still not a universal over 100 years later, well into the 1920s. In fact, the narrative of what quartet performance ought to be is extremely interesting, and is not the monolithic, simple progression from conversation to unity that it is often assumed to be. It is tempting to see performance style and compositional trends as developing in parallel; the quartet is a great example of how the story can be much more interesting and sophisticated than that!

[3] Of course, one of the most important factors in entrenching this idea even further has been the rise of recording, which allows the comparison of parallel versions. The impact of recording on performance style in general is a huge topic, and later chapters will attempt to look at this in more detail...

[4] Here’s a good example of how this is sometimes talked about:



© Chris Terepin 2015