Cultivating String Quartets in Beethoven's Vienna.
Cultivating String Quartets in Beethoven's Vienna by Nancy November is worth serious consideration by individuals who love and think deeply about music as historical and cultural phenomena and by libraries serving such patrons. In a clear, sophisticated, and carefully crafted narrative, the book takes on three paradigms that November argues have distorted our understandings of the genre: the "near-exclusive focus" on Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven; the overlooking of other composers' music-except perhaps for their string quartets-and then judging them by narrow aesthetic ideals; and the presentation of instrumental chamber music as " 'autonomous,' cut off from social situations and meanings" (p. 2). The challenge of responding to such familiar tropes is in confronting audiences and writers who have been more or less accepting of the general narrative for the past century. Her account, which unfolds through eight chapters and an epilogue, involves critiquing wider concepts of "public" and "private" and of Beethoven's place in the history. She also mines period definitions of chamber music to engage readers in a story of "culturally determined" ideals being "radically renegotiated" (p. 5).
These ambitions noted, November launches into chapter 1 and a definition of chamber music in the early nineteenth century with foci on genre, the dominance of the string quartet, and masculine music making. Along the way, she contrasts history's subsequent generic focus on chamber music instrumentation with the performance parameters that originally defined the genre and, in the process, looks at early nineteenth-century visual metaphors for chamber music and addresses the category of class. The chapter concludes with a subsection in which she engages Wilhelm Windelband's "idiographic" approach, which Eduard Hanslick adopted as he worked toward what he called "eine lebendige Geschichte des neueren Wiener Konzertwesens" (a living history of Viennese concert life; p. 20). She freely reformulates-"following Hanslick's methodology in spirit, although not to the letter" (p. 22)-his path into a twenty-first-century approach of "snapshots and statistics" (p. 20), the latter of which she further nuances as " 'sampling,' taking snapshots, or cutting cross-sections" (p. 21). This is perhaps the first major example of her creative approach of seeking life in historical constructs from looking at the past through a historicist's lens.
Embarking on her first snapshots in chapter 2, "Celebrating Haydn, Cultivating Opera," November discusses the influence of Haydn, vocal music, and the theater in Beethoven's Vienna, and she surveys the careers of Paul Wranitzky, Emanuel Aloys Forster, and Adalbert Gyrowetz, drawing on her scholarly expertise in these areas. She seizes this opportunity to discuss musical markets, compositional careers, and the generally "outward-looking character" of Viennese chamber music and stresses that ideals such as homogeneity or "purity" were "not yet shaping aesthetics of chamber music" (p. 59).
The third chapter, "Selling String Quartets in Beethoven's Vienna," features short subsections containing her analysis of publishing catalogs from the earliest years of the nineteenth century, which provide a nice contrast to the expository detail of the previous chapter. Her chapter conclusion again engages larger themes: the role of publishers in selling "stability" and "sociability"- themes that will reappear later in the book-and an acknowledgment that string quartets in Vienna around 1800 have perhaps been overemphasized. Her energetic dedication to a close historical reading of chamber music through the book makes this latter point hard not to accept even by readers who might have been guilty of a more complacent approach to the genre.
Chapter 4, "Locating String Quartets in Beethoven's Vienna," paints a cultural landscape of early nineteenth-century Viennese quartet "homes," from music making in actual homes and salons to public concerts and the emergence of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde. In her sketch, she makes copious reference to primary sources (including those outside of music) and secondary source citations. (For example, she expands on her reference to "public" and "private" in the book's introduction by elaborating on Marie Sumner Lott's identification of a third space, the "semi-public" [p. 93; see Maria Sumner Lott, The Social Worlds of Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music: Composers, Consumers, Communities (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015), 18-20]). With the caveat that the "new public spaces" she traces in the chapter "were never particularly large," she stresses that "the musical products performed there were now clearly in the public domain," leading to a "new review culture" (p. 120), to which she turns in chapter 5. In a series of subsections, she considers different aspects of review culture, from the singularities of Viennese music criticism, through the development of a " 'work' concept" (p. 124), and through contrasting ideals of "'selfless' performance" (p. 130) and a continuing emphasis on "'genius in performance'" (p. 132). She takes pains to stress divergence in perspectives voiced by reviewers and distance herself from certain typical generalizations (for example, those contrasting "serious" and "popular" musics [p. 140ff.]). Still, as elsewhere, she accepts the emergence of a serious music culture, requiring her reader to embrace the nuances of a developmental history. With mounting evidence, she again stresses that the role of other chamber music of the time "should not be underplayed" (p. 143). She concludes the chapter with Leon Botstein's definition of canon formation, "rearranging" it to reflect her emphasis on the points of views of the players and reviewers as shaping the way music has been heard (pp. 145-46). Her commitment to the human actors of nineteenth-century chamber music was a theme already laid out in the book's introduction, and this skirting of larger philosophical appraisals for a historicist's narrative is both a strength and constraint of her project.
Chapter 6 shifts further attention back to these "players" as she writes of the "Sociability, Showmanship, and Study" of the "'Quartet Friends,'" drawing on extended quotations from primary sources of the time. In short, she reminds her readers that "theories of genre that reviewers were starting to build ... were not nearly so clear in practice as they, or we, might like" (p. 174). She claims that "classifying the early nineteenth-century quartet by orientation-the group of people to whom the music was most directly addressed-helps to illuminate the style" (p. 175). With that said, she shifts to chapter 7, about the string quartet and the "reforming" of the listener (p. 177). Here she is interested in the development of an "ideology of still, silent listening ... promoted by active human agents" (p. 194), noting the influence of agents such as Beethoven and stating that the "romantic listener" was not yet the norm in Vienna of the time (p. 197). Tracing this development, she both reinforces and subtly critiques existing scholarship on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century listening practices.
The final chapter, "Schubert's Song, Beethoven's Theatricality," circles back to her critique of the view of Beethoven's overpowering influence, which she established from the book's introduction and subtly supported throughout the narrative. Roughly aligning Beethoven with the process of canonization and Franz Schubert with entertainment and sociability, she returns to the ideas of song and theatricality-exhibited in works such as Schubert's String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804, and Beethoven's opus 132-as leading to a more subtle understanding of wit via a Jean-Paulian mixture of comedy and tragedy. Following the work of Mary Hunter on Adolf Bernhard Marx's criticism of Beethoven's opera 132 and 135, November points to a "more complex, arguably more heartfelt sociability" in comparison with previous quartets (p. 220, quoting Mary Hunter, " 'The Most Interesting Genre of Music': Performance, Sociability and Meaning in the Classical String Quartet, 1800-1830," Nineteenth-Centuiy Music Review 9, no. 1 : 65). Ultimately, she concludes that Beethoven and Schubert "composed neither fully with nor fully against the emergent ideals of string quartets. Rather, both were helping to re-shape the genre and its ideals, and simultaneously helping to re-form the art of listening" (p. 221).
In the epilogue, November returns to the topic of "Constructing 'Viennese Chamber Music' " with a more global critique of the work of Hanslick and Ludwig Nohl. She circles back to themes of the previous chapters and stresses one last time the importance of creating histories using values of the time: "interchangeability or flexibility with respect to performance forces; provision of entertainment for amateur listeners and performers; and in general an opportunity to interact and socialise through music" (p. 231). Further attention to any one of these categories may yield even more new insights into chamber music of Beethoven's Vienna, a goal toward which this book makes substantial strides.
Perhaps if we as audiences and scholars experience more vividly the pleasures and intellectual stimulation of these historical accounts, we might have richer engagement in our twenty-first-century experiences of chamber music. As one of its many contributions, history may, in this instance, take on the role of historia magistra vitae, and in so doing, fuel musical experience and intellectual curiosity for years to come.
University of West Georgia