The Classical Period: Music as a Conversation
As you’ll see in our short film, in the eighteenth century music was associated with sociability, to the extent that people often treated it as a kind of conversation. Composers sometimes referred to this idea in naming their instrumental compositions: a popular title in France in the eighteenth century was the pièce dialogué (a piece in dialogue); in Italy, you can find sets of conversazioni a tre (conversations between 3 instruments).
Below, you’ll find some examples of people at the time writing about chamber music as voices in conversation, whether as an extended analogy of the musical processes that take place, or as a way of understanding the human interaction and communication of the performers with each other and with their listeners. You’ll see that their different roles – composer, performer, listener, journalist – give them slightly different perspectives, but they all emphasise the social aspect of chamber music. And chamber music-making is at the heart of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s approach to performance.
If you’d like to learn more about the classical period and music as a conversation, watch our short film featuring Dr Katherine Hambridge.
Charles Avison was a Newcastle-based composer and entrepreneur who ran several concert series in the city. This is an extract from the ‘Advertisement’ for his Six Sonatas for harpsichord, two violins and violoncello (1760) Op. 7: this text appears as a preface to the sheet music.
“This Kind of Music is not, indeed, calculated so much for public Entertainment, as for private Amusement. It is rather like a Conversation among Friends, where the Few are of one Mind, and propose their mutual Sentiments, only to give Variety, and enliven their select Company. How far these Compositions will bear this Analogy, I shall not pretend to say; if they please, it must be from their Fancy and Taste that they please, and this must be determined by the Judgement of others. Yet this I may venture to affirm of them, that as they are formed in strict agreement to the Laws of Modulation and Harmony, they will thence receive that Advantage which Conversations does from observing the Laws of Civility and Decorum. If they are never Brilliant, they will, at least, be free from Impertinencies. For indeed this Kind of Music ought to observe a Precision not unlike That of a Dialogue in Form; Where Melody should invent and propose the Subject; Measure state and regulate it; Modulation expatiate and discant upon it; while Harmony establishes supports, and gives Energy to the whole. Thus Music may be said to discourse, and keep up our Attention like a methodical, and intelligent Conversation.”
Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung
Here an anonymous journalist expounds the virtues and features of the string quartet for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (the ‘General Musical Journal’), which was published in Leipzig but read all over German-speaking lands. The writer indulges in some pretty optimistic fantasies about music’s power to overcome social division, though they were based in part on the practice of higher-class amateur musicians and lower-class professional musicians playing chamber music together (whether that meant that social distinctions and antagonisms were suspended is another matter…). His hope that quartet playing would replace drinking was perhaps also a little optimistic.
You’ll see he refers to a ‘quartet table’, which was what the string players would have sat around instead of 4 music stands: tellingly, it means that the players are facing inwards to each other, rather than out to an audience, which emphasises the importance of group communication in chamber music-making.
“The magic of the music makes everyone the same and binds together in a friendly way those who would otherwise have been separated forever by social rank and circumstances. When playing, the soul, elevated and calmed by the power of sound, forgets or scorns in this enjoyment the burden of life, worry, or distress that remains, and is strengthened for new action and resilience. Whoever drinks with another is a friend: [but] the quartet table will soon supersede the innkeeper’s table. It is impossible to hate a man with whom one has once seriously played music, and people who of their own free will have spent the winter together playing quartets are good friends for the rest of their lives.”
“Über Quartettmusik.” Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung 12/33 (16 May 1810), 514. Translated by Katherine Hambridge, 2019.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, famous for his Faust and The Sorceror’s Apprentice, took a keen interest in music, an interest he’d developed partly through his friendship with musicians such as Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn and their teacher Karl Zelter. With Zelter, who lived in Berlin, he kept up a long correspondence: Goethe here refers to one of the cornerstones of Berlin’s musical scene, Carl Möser’s Quartet-Soirées, established in 1813. Goethe’s position is that of an interested listener, rather than musical expert; he suggests that it is listening to quartet music as conversation that makes music’s more abstract language ‘intelligible’ to him.
“If I were in Berlin, I should seldom miss the Möser quartet evenings. I have always found performances of this kind more intelligible than other instrumental music: one hears four rational persons conversing together, and imagines one gains something from their discourse and becomes acquainted with the peculiarities of their different instruments.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, letter to Carl Friedrich Zelter (November 9, 1829)
Translated by Lorraine Byrne Bodley in Goethe and Zelter: Musical Dialogues (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), 445.
Pierre Baillot was a Parisian violin virtuoso and pedagogue, who published his treatise on The Art of the Violin in 1834. As the leader of the Baillot quartet, perhaps it is to be expected that he places great emphasis on the role of the first violin in ‘leading’ conversation, as well as on the exchange between the four instruments!
“In the quartet, [the performer] sacrifices all the riches of his instrument to the general effect; he enters into the spirit of this other type of composition, whose charming dialogue seems to be a conversation among friends, who convey to each other their feelings, their sentiments, their mutual affections; their sometimes different opinions give rise to an animated discussion to which each gives his own development; they soon take pleasure in following the stimulus given by their leader, whose ascendancy carries them along, an ascendancy which he makes felt only by the power of thought that he displays, and which he owes less to the brilliance of his playing than to the persuasive sweetness of his expression.”
Pierre-Marie-François de Sales Baillot, L’art du violon: nouvelle méthode (Paris, 1834), 266-67. Translated in Robin Stowell, Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 276-77.