“Theorizing the Classical Quartet”
This paper examines historical writings about the “Classical” string quartet, a genre often compared to social intercourse. Such metaphors implicitly interpret each part (or player) as representing distinct characters. This concept of multiple personas contrasts sharply with the more monological musical personifications advanced in many recent writings on musical agency, such as Cone’s influential The Composer’s Voice, which posit a “central intelligence” representing the “mind” of the composition, its fictional protagonist, or its composer.
Focusing principally on discussions of Mozart’s quartets in Koch’s Versuch (1793) and Momigny’s Cours complet (1806), I examine whether instrumental personas postulated by each author constitute genuine agents, according to Monahan’s (2013) criteria. At issue is whether personas are described as possessing (1) such anthropomorphic qualities as sentience, volition, and emotion, and (2) a capacity for independent action or utterance.
Koch describes the quartet as comprising four main parts (Hauptstimmen) that constantly exchange melodic, bass, and accompanimental roles, an arrangement that he contrasts with other genres in which a single instrument claims the ancestral privilege of being the main melody (Vorrecht der Hauptmelodie). Koch explicitly equates the concept of Hauptstimme with personhood, stating that a polyphonic piece (comprising multiple Hauptstimmen) represents the sentiments of many individual people, unlike a homophonic piece, whose lone Hauptstimme represents one individual. He describes the characters’ intercourse as being motivated by rivalry (Wettstreit), echoing a competitive principle described in many contemporaneous conversation manuals (Burke 1993).Momigny’s analysis of Mozart’s K. 421 famously recasts it as an aria for Dido (first violin), with a minor part for Aeneas (fleetingly represented by the cello). Although Momigny’s score—which assigns verse almost exclusively to the first violin—would seem to relegate the others to subordinate status, his prose reveals a more nuanced understanding, particularly in passages involving contrapuntal imitation, which prompt a protoagential interpretation.