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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off
Richard Taruskin

That difference lies in the respective media employed. For Josquin, the primary means at his disposal was a vocal composition, in which it was actually the words that conveyed the message he wished to impart. For Haydn, a wordless instrumental composition was the preferred medium for a no less pointed message. Instrumental music was effectively displacing vocal music as the medium of greatest cultural prestige. That was already something unthinkable in Josquin’s time. But even more important, instrumental music gained that prestige by developing what was previously an unthinkably precise and powerful expressive potential.

That potential was realized through a newly complex and versatile process of signification, made possible by the rise of harmonically governed forms articulated through thematische Arbeit. The conventions through which motives derived from themes now functioned dynamically in conjunction with the tonal trajectory opened up a whole new level of musical signification, giving instrumental music in effect a double sign system.

On the one hand there were the old conventions, inherited from earlier styles and repertoires, whereby music could represent the sights and sounds of the natural world and the moods and feelings of the human world: onomatopoeia, iconicity, metaphor, metonymy—all that can be subsumed under the general heading of extroversive semiotics (literally, “pointing outward”). For music this included the sounds of other music—hunting horns, courtly dances, quotations of famous pieces, whatever—and their built-in associations.

On the other hand there was the newly important domain of introversive semiotics (“pointing inward”)—a sign system made up of sounds that pointed to other sounds or musical events within the work itself. The most basic of these, perhaps, was the relationship of dominant and tonic—a normative relationship of two triads that marked them as signs of tension and repose, respectively. In a major key, the dominant triad is structurally and sonically indistinguishable from the tonic. It is only a convention set up by the context that marks the one as a pointer to the other. Similar conventions cause us to expect a modulation away from the tonic in the first half of a piece and a modulation back through a Far Out Point in the second half. Each event in the unfolding of the piece, then, carries implications for future unfolding, even as it seems to be a consequence of past unfolding. Thus everything that happens within the piece can be construed as a pointer toward some other thing—or better, toward all the other things—taking place within the piece.

The “Farewell” Symphony conveyed its meaning to the Prince through a unique interaction of introversive and extroversive signs. When its meaning is explained nowadays, it is apt to be the simplest extroversive signals that receive the emphasis: the musicians dropping out one by one from the last movement (and, as we know from the story, blowing out their reading candles and physically leaving the performing space as they did so). In the absence of all other factors, these gestures seem to be gestures of farewell to the Prince himself and to Eszterháza. But that does not tell the whole story; nor could it alone have conveyed the whole message of the symphony as the Prince successfully received it. As James Webster has pointed out, the whole symphony participates in the unfolding of the message, beginning with the very strangely shaped first movement.7 Its introversive semiotic requires a well-attuned perceiver; that is why it is not usually included in the story as adapted for “music appreciation” purposes. But that is precisely why it will repay our close attention here; it offers a matchless opportunity for attuning our ears to the introversive sign system on which Haydn relied.

As Landon reminds us in his account of the work, “Prince Esterházy was a trained and performing musician: he will have heard the very odd sound of this movement; and he will have noted that the subsidiary subject [or “second theme”] appears only once, in D major, in the development section,” and so on.8 In other words, he will have noticed the many departures or deviations from established norms—that is, failures of conventional implication and consequence—that Haydn deliberately planted in the work to raise questions in a sophisticated listener’s mind.

But introversive and extroversive semiotics, while distinguishable, do not operate in mutual isolation. Just as potent a poser of questions is the radical contrast in “affect” (always an extroversive factor) between the movement’s two themes: the one of a theatrically exaggerated stressfulness and tonal “remoteness” (matching the physical remoteness of the summer palace from “civilization”), the other, coming out of nowhere and prematurely disappearing, of an equally exaggerated blissfulness and tonal repose. Its disruption of introversive norms marks its blissfulness as unreal, an uncanny dream.

And it remains an obsessive presence, an object of longing, as the dissonant recurrence of its keynote (D) in the minuet bears out. When the long minuetlike Adagio coda intrudes on the last movement, there is the same sense of tonal disruption, the same sense of an alternative reality, into which the members of the orchestra now disappear one by one. As they blow out their candles as if retiring for the night amid this ambience of unreal, longed-for bliss, the suggestion that the bliss in question is conjugal bliss becomes so palpable as to be, in the context of an eighteenth-century court soirée, practically lewd. (Another reason, perhaps, why the story, as adapted nowadays for students and kiddies, is apt to leave out the connections between the various movements.)

We are dealing, then, with a mode of instrumental discourse capable of very subtle shades of allusion and irony. Haydn does not normally draw as extensively on all of its representational resources as he does in the “Farewell” Symphony, nor does he often write a multimovement work in which the different movements are, semiotically or narratively speaking, so firmly and obviously linked. The work is a unique tour de force within his output. But the resources on which he drew so extravagantly in this one case were permanent and ubiquitous resources for his music—and, by dint of their widespread emulation, for all European instrumental music. Introversive semiotics, in particular, had been brought permanently to a new level of refinement and consequence.

More commonly, introversive semiotics became for Haydn a site for the virtuoso exercise of wit. His mature instrumental music is forever commenting ironically and amusingly on its own unfolding, making his art an unprecedentedly self-conscious one, and one that seems uncommonly given to complimenting the discernment of its listeners. These are all aspects of politesse, refined “company” behavior. The music of this lower-Austrian wheelwright’s son thus represents an epitome of aristocratic art.

Haydn’s maturest instrumental style is often said to date from the 1780s, when after a long interval Haydn resumed composing string quartets and thereafter concentrated on them to a remarkable degree, creating in the process what he himself saw fit to describe (in a couple of business letters written in December 1781) as “a new and special manner.” The phrase has been much debated. It has been suggested that Haydn was just trying to drum up commercial interest in his latest work at a time when his patron, in view of Haydn’s great and unanticipated celebrity, had at last granted him dispensation from the exclusivity clause in his contract, freeing him to conclude subsidiary deals with publishers and individual noble purchasers. And yet a new motivic tightness and intricacy in Haydn’s writing does emerge at this point, betokening a new fascination—first his, now ours—with introversive semiotics.

Unlike his symphonies, Haydn’s quartets carry opus numbers. This directly reflects his new circumstances; they were written for publication (i.e., for profit), and they bore dedications to other important aristocrats besides Prince Esterházy, for which an additional honorarium could be expected. The set of six issued as op. 33 in 1782 was the first set to be published by the Vienna house of Artaria, from then on Haydn’s main publisher. They bore dedication to the Grand Duke (later Tsar) Paul of Russia, for which reason they are sometimes called the “Russian” Quartets.

Perhaps most significant of all, they were the first quartets by Haydn that were not alternatively billed as divertimentos. Like the concert symphony, the quartet genre had solidified by then, in large part thanks to Haydn. The symphony and the quartet could be regarded by the 1780s, then, as two solid precipitates (one “public,” the other “private”) from the earlier all-purpose instrumental blend. The great distinguishing feature of op. 33, and possibly one of the elements that Haydn thought of as a “new and special” manner, was a newly versatile texture, no longer nearly so dominated by the first violin.

Sign Systems

fig. 10-7 Tsar Paul I of Russia, to whom Haydn dedicated his “Russian” quartets.

It had been anticipated in the last set of “Divertimentos,” published as op. 20 in 1774; but there the liberation of the subordinate voices had come about largely as the by-product of an experimental, somewhat show-offy revival of archaic contrapuntal genres like double and triple fugues. In op. 33, the heightened contrapuntal interest was fully integrated into the taut motivic elaboration. In effect, there were henceforth two dimensions of introversive pointing: horizontal (“structural”) and vertical (“textural”). This supple warp and woof was indeed a new and special manner, and it was taken up with a will by all the other practitioners of what would be retrospectively and admiringly (if also misleadingly) dubbed Wiener Klassik—“Viennese classicism”—by the historians and pedagogues of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Haydn followed up on op. 33 with no fewer than five more quartet sets, each containing six: op. 50 (1787), opp. 54/55 (composed in 1788, split up into threes for publication in 1789 and 1790), op. 64 (1790, published 1791), opp. 71/74 (composed in 1793, published by threes in 1795 and 1796), and op. 76 (composed in 1797, published in 1799). There were also four odd items, one published as op. 42 in 1786, two as op. 77 in 1802, and one last unfinished quartet (two movements, evidently the middle ones) published as op. 103, Haydn’s swansong, in 1806. Haydn’s lifetime total of 68 quartets is exceeded only by his symphonies; and during his last decade of active creative life, from 1793, they were his primary interest.


(7) J. Webster, Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony and the Idea of Classical Style (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 45: “Since the [D-major] interlude remains unexplained, never returning, it too forms part of the ‘problem’ of the work. Its resolution can only come elsewhere—on a level which involves the entire symphony.”

(8) H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. II (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978), p. 302.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 13 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10009.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10009.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 10 Instrumental Music Lifts Off." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 13 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-10009.xml