Musicology

“Parody of Learned Style in Beethoven’s Chamber Music”

Wednesday afternoon, October 31, 2:00-6:00pm
Tamara Balter, independent scholar, Ph.D., Indiana University

“Parody of Learned Style in Beethoven’s Chamber Music”

Since Ratner’s studies on topics and their significance for the classical style (1980), accounts of the topic of learned or strict style have become common in literature. However, a specific variant of this topic, parody of learned style, has scarcely been discussed, with the exception of Grave’s study of Haydn’s string quartets (2006). Most writers (e.g., Ratner, Longyear, and Lowe) have only briefly touched upon this theme in their accounts of comic elements in some of Haydn’s and Beethoven’s fugal writing, focusing on genres or forms that are usually not associated with learned or fugal style. Raymond Monelle (2006) raises the possibility of tracing irony “when a topic appears in an uncharacteristic position,” noting that learned style typically appears in the middle. Indeed, when a movement starts with such a topic (e.g., fugal writing) but quickly moves to a contrasting topic, frustrating expectations for the main topic of the movement, irony, or parody may result. Similarly, when fugal writing is used in an uncharacteristic idiom (e.g., with a rustic dance as subject), , irony may stem from the incongruity between contrasting topics and associations.

Parody of highly contrapuntal writing in Haydn’s and Beethoven’s string quartets is sufficiently common to demand a detailed study. Whereas Haydn rarely employs “full-fledged” fugal procedures in string quartets written after Op. 20, when he does employ such procedures locally, they often serve an expressive function (e.g., as topics suffused with certain associations, such as learned style, sacred music, archaism, authority, etc.). Given the established role of contrapuntal procedures as markers of learned style, Haydn and Beethoven often introduce them only to be used as ground for comic or ironic manipulation. In his early quartets, Beethoven often parodies fugal procedures, whereas later quartets reveal varied attitudes toward fugal writing, often departing from traditional ones. In what seems to be Beethoven’s first satirical parody of contrapuntal procedures (String Quintet Op. 4), Haydn serves as the target. Although the parody of counterpoint became more frequent in Beethoven’s quartets, he most likely emulated Haydn in this type of parody. Uncovering the irony embedded in Beethoven’s music offers a glimpse into the artist’s mind, setting aright what was previously often considered “bad” writing (e.g., A. B. Marx’s dismissal of the finale of Op. 102/2), affording new insight and interpretation.