Notes 60.1 (2003) 153-155
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The String Quartet, 1750-1797: Four Types of Musical Conversation. By Mara Parker. Aldershot, Hampshire, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2002. [xiii, 315 p. ISBN 1-84014-682-6. $74.95.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.
In The String Quartet, 1750-1797, Mara Parker develops a new means by which to examine and assess the vast repertoire of string quartets composed from the middle of the eighteenth century up to but not including the works of Beethoven. Her sample data, an impressively extensive collection of over 650 works by numerous composers of various nationalities, leads her to suggest that four kinds of musical discourse characterize the movement types in these quartets: the lecture, the polite conversation, the debate, and the conversation. She discusses each of these discourse types in four principal chapters. These follow three initial chapters on the works' function as chamber music, their social position in select eighteenth-century European cities, and past scholarship on the genre.
Parker's goal in presenting this typology, beyond simply categorizing these works, appears to be a two-fold critique of the string quartet scholarship that she surveys. First, she seeks with her four-fold discursive model to provide an alternative to what she terms a "structural" or alternatively "theoretical" approach to the genre, one that focuses on motivic working in sonata form movements. Then, she claims that using her new typology one can refine a purely evolutionist understanding of the development of the string quartet in this era, in which works are thought to progress from treble-dominated homophony to more equally voiced, "conversational" textures.
Certainly this critique is well-aimed, if now a little outdated. As James Webster demonstrated in 1991, a powerful idea of classical style, which encompasses the approaches Parker mentions, seems to crystallize in the twentieth-century German scholarship of Adolf Sandberger and his followers (James Webster, Haydn's "Farewell" Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991]). This ideology contributed to a highly influential if problematically restricted view of the music of this era in general, and the string quartet in particular. More recently though, scholars have offered various alternative perspectives on classical instrumental music, including the string quartet. In light of this work, Parker might well have considerably abbreviated her summary and critique of the earlier quartet literature. It is puzzling that she [End Page 153] does not refer to some more recent relevant studies, especially the approaches developed by Nicole Schwindt-Gross in Drama und Diskurs (Laaber: Laaber, 1989) and Gretchen Wheelock in Haydn's Ingenious Jesting with Art (New York: Schirmer Books, 1992), for example.
In place of in-text summaries of past literature, Parker might well have devoted more space to the logical development of her own typology. Certainly she has tapped a rich source of evidence, presented here in the form of tables showing the classification of the many movements that she examined, and detailed discussions of previously unpublished music linked to extensive music examples. It is generally the case, however, that Parker's own interpretations are difficult to locate within her evidence or take second place to it. This can hinder the reader in following her line of reasoning. Near the start of chapter 4 ("The Lecture"), for example, the reader is presented with a lengthy list of lecture-type movements (table 1, pp. 76-84). Near the end of the chapter, on the other hand, Parker elaborates on listeners' and players' possible perceptions of their roles in this type of musical discourse. These latter are seemingly essential aspects of the model which could have been developed in detail earlier.
As it stands, Parker's typology of the eighteenth-century string quartet tends to lack the theoretical support that would allow her to demonstrate its full potential. At a fundamental level, for example, it is unclear whether her typology is based primarily on the relationship between musical parts in the quartet, between the listeners and the players, or both. This ambiguity leaves her fascinating comments on visual and experiential aspects...