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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice
Richard Taruskin

Sometimes Mozart allowed the exploratory, improvisatory spirit of his keyboard fantasias to invade other genres. One of the most celebrated instances is the slow introduction to the first movement of Mozart’s String Quartet in C major, K. 465, composed in Vienna just a few months before the keyboard fantasia in C minor. It was finished on 14 January 1785, and published later that year as the sixth and last in the set of quartets dedicated to Haydn.

One youthful experiment apart (K. 171, composed at the age of seventeen), this is the only one of Mozart’s twenty-three quartets to begin with a slow introduction. It is clear that this little essay in uncanny chromaticism (thanks to which the whole work is now known as the “Dissonance” Quartet) was an import from another genre, a virtual keyboard improvisation set for four stringed instruments (Fig. 11-5).

The dissonance to which the quartet owes its nickname is the glaringly exposed cross relation, A♭ vs. A, that occurs between viola and first violin at their respective entrances. (The effect is repeated four bars later a whole step lower; there are also many more-or-less concealed cross relations in the introduction, for example between cello and second violin in mm. 2–3 and 6–7). The harmony implied by this chromatic inflection suggests a move to the dominant (the A♭ being part of a Neapolitan sixth in the key of G, the A-natural the fifth of a in the same key), and that is indeed the overall trajectory, as it is in all slow introductions. But, just as in the C-minor Fantasia, a passus duriusculus intervenes, falling by semitones in the bass and giving rise to a whole series of fugitive shadow-”keys” (B♭ minor, F major, C minor) along the way.

So eerie and bizarre is the effect of this seemingly wayward (but actually so unerringly calculated) little passage, that it became a cause célèbre. The first to attack it was Giuseppe Sarti, Mozart’s older contemporary, whose opera Fra i due litiganti Mozart quoted in the banquet scene from Don Giovanni as a token of friendship. Sarti’s essay, “Osservazioni critiche sopra un quartetto di Mozart” (“Carping comments about a Mozart quartet”), shows a far less friendly attitude toward Mozart, whom he dismisses as an upstart piano player with “spoiled ears.”24 As for cross relations, Sarti declared gruffly that there were only two kinds: those that should be avoided and those that were intolerable.

Fantasia As Metaphor

fig. 11-5 Mozart, autograph score of String Quartet in C major, K. 465 (“Dissonance”), showing the celebrated slow introduction to the first movement and the beginning of the Allegro.

Probably written in St. Petersburg, Russia, where Sarti served the court of the Empress Catherine the Great, the essay did not see print in full until 1832, more than four decades after Mozart’s death (and three after Sarti’s own). When it did, it prompted several attempts to “correct” Mozart’s writing. The most interesting of these was by the Belgian scholar-critic François-Joseph Fétis, who changed no notes, only rhythms, but managed to avoid all the direct cross relations—an achievement as clever and skillful from the technical point of view as it was esthetically obtuse (Ex. 11-9).

Fantasia As Metaphor

ex. 11-9 François-Joseph Fétis, rewrite of slow introduction to K. 465, I, mm. 1–5

In a way both Sarti and Fétis were correct: the former in recognizing that the style of the introduction was that of a “piano player,” the latter in normalizing it according to the rules of formal composition customarily employed when writing “in parts,” as one does in a proper string quartet. But that only serves to confirm the surmise that the origins of Mozart’s harmonic boldness lay in the unwritten traditions of free improvisation. His boldness consisted not so much in the harmonic transgressions his critics sought to eliminate, but, more basically by far, in the substitution of one set of generic norms for another.

One who mistook neither Mozart’s purpose nor the effect of his achievement was the man to whom the quartet was dedicated. Haydn heard the piece the very day after it was completed, at a quartet evening in Vienna on 15 January 1785; it was then and there that he exclaimed to Leopold Mozart that the latter’s son was the greatest musician of the age. He confessed his astonishment and admiration not only in words but also, later, in exquisite musical deed. More than a decade later, undoubtedly prompted and emboldened by the teasing memory of Mozart’s little fantasia for quartet, Haydn wrote a magnificent full-length fantasia for orchestra, perhaps his most amazing composition and certainly his most unexpected one.

While in England with Salomon in 1791, Haydn had attended the great Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey. He immediately perceived something we have long since observed—that Handel’s sacred oratorios, rendered in monumental performances, were for the British a symbol of nationhood, the first truly nationalistic musical genre in our modern sense of the word. Haydn wanted to offer something similar to the Austrian nation: a sacred oratorio with text not in Latin but in the language of the people, for performance not in a Catholic worship service but under secular auspices, as a unifier not of a religious body but of a body politic, to reinforce the Austrian nation in its loyalty not only to a dynastic crown but to a common soil.

When Thomas Linley, the director of the Drury Lane Oratorio Concerts, offered Haydn The Creation, a libretto based on Milton’s Paradise Lost that had been prepared for Handel but never set, Haydn leapt at the chance. He took the text home with him to Vienna, had it translated (as Die Schöpfung) by Baron van Swieten, and began setting it to music in 1796. The resulting oratorio was very much in the Handelian tradition, including da capo arias and old-fashioned contrapuntal choruses. Its popularity in Austria following its 1798 première fulfilled Haydn’s ambition for the work and sparked the composition of a sequel, an oratorio called The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten), to a libretto by James Thomson, also revised and translated by van Swieten. First performed in Vienna in April 1801, it was Haydn’s last major work (followed only by two Masses, one of them drawing on the music for The Creation).

One part of The Creation, however, had no Handelian counterpart and was anything but old-fashioned in conception. That was the very opening of the oratorio, the Introduction (Einleitung). Subtitled Vorstellung des Chaos—“The Representation of Chaos”—it was an unprecedented attempt to depict in music the disorder that preceded the biblical Beginning. Yet while the illustrative endeavor as such may have been unprecedented, the musical means by which it was accomplished had a precedent, and that precedent was the keyboard fantasia.

It has been suggested, by Donald Francis Tovey and others, that Haydn’s pious depiction of Chaos and the formation of the Cosmos was influenced by what was then in fact the most advanced scientific theory of the origin of the universe: the so-called nebular hypothesis, first proposed by Immanuel Kant in 1755 and popularized by the French astronomer Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace, in his Exposition du système du monde, published in 1796, the very year in which Haydn began work on The Creation. According to the nebular hypothesis, the solar system originated as a nebula, an immense body of rarefied gas and dust swirling in space, that gradually cooled, contracted, and condensed to form the sun and the planets. Or, as the Bible put it, in the beginning “the earth was without form and void” until God gave the Word; whereupon the processes described in the nebular hypothesis commenced. Haydn’s Representation of Chaos, then, was a representation of a process of Becoming, through which what was without form took shape.

“Here is your infinite empty space!” Tovey declared, referring to the sublimely hollow opening sonority (Ex. 11-10a), a gaping orchestral unison on the note C that discloses neither mode nor key.25 It was an inspired interpretation, for it identified the crucial representational device: the functional degree relationships of tonality, or rather their anomalous withholding and gradual reassertion. A cadence identifying the tonic and dominant, normally given at the outset of a composition to set up the structural norms that will govern it, is deliberately suppressed. The expected thing is normally so routinely supplied by the opening thematic material as to be taken for granted, hardly noticed as such. Its suppression, repeatedly and teasingly replayed, is bizarre, making Haydn’s Representation unique among his orchestral compositions and singularly memorable.

What Haydn did, in effect, was to turn the techniques of fantasia writing as we have observed them in Mozart into a metaphor. “Tonality,” as Tovey brilliantly observed, “is Haydn’s musical Cosmos.” As inchoate matter strives, according to the nebular hypothesis, toward shape and differentiation, so the music strives toward the emergence of its tonic triad and all of the attendant degree functions. The means by which Haydn realized this metaphor, expertly prolonging and delaying the process of tonal clarification, strikingly parallels the harmonic vagaries we have observed both in Mozart’s C-minor Fantasy and in the Adagio from the “Dissonance” Quartet.

As in both Mozartean precedents, so here, a bare C, tentatively identifiable as the tonic (and eventually established as such), is initially disconfirmed by an A-flat that turns it perceptually into the third of VI (or of a Neapolitan to V) rather than the root of I (compare Ex. 11-10a with Exx. 11-8 and 11-9).

Fantasia As Metaphor

ex. 11-10a Franz Joseph Haydn, Creation, Vorstellun g des Chaos in piano reduction, mm. 1–10

Haydn dramatizes the frustration of his music’s “will to form” with special rigor and emphasis. He follows the unison C in Ex. 11-10a, like Mozart in Ex. 11-8a, with an E♭ that at first appears to signal a gradual building-up of the full C-minor triad. That process is then explicitly contradicted by the A♭ contributed by the second violins. Once sounded, that disruptive note is held while the C and E♭ both slip down a half step and are joined by the first violins’ F to form a classically ambiguous diminished-seventh chord. Only then does the A♭ move down to G; but the delayed resolution produces not a tonic triad but a dominant seventh, the opposite member of the awaited cadential pair. The resolution to the by now even more urgently expected tonic is deferred while the violins decorate the dominant function with a chromatic ascent—F♯, G, A♭—that might well have been copied right out of the opening phrase of Mozart’s Fantasia. But when the resolution comes, on the downbeat of m. 4, it is once again sullied by the A♭ in place of G—once again a dull deceptive cadence has left the Cosmos “without form and void.”

Now the whole opening gesture is replayed and intensified by compression. The first violins’ F is pinched up to an F♯ in m. 6, producing a chromatically altered chord devoid of clear harmonic purpose. (Its reappearance decades later in the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde will only confirm its tonally suspensive bent.) The chord gives way to the same diminished seventh as before, only now accompanied by a G in the bass that turns the harmony into an especially tense version of the dominant (the “dominant ninth”); but when the bass arpeggiation moves to a member of the tonic triad (E♭) in m. 7, the rest of the chord stays put, producing a wildly dissonant suspension. An unconventional resolution gets us closer to the tonic, increasing our agitated suspense. But the inverted tonic triad, rhythmically unstable, gives way in m. 8 to the submediant, which, having gained an augmented sixth (F♯), is now redirected, more powerfully than ever, to the dominant.

Yet that dominant never materializes, and of course neither does the tonic. At the downbeat of m. 9 the expected G in the bass is altogether confoundingly re-identified (or misidentified) as the third of the mediant triad, and all sense of propulsion toward C minor is lost. Not until m. 21 will any decisive cadence produce a strongly voiced triad in root position, and that triad will be rooted on D♭, a note not even found in the scale of C minor, the long-foreshadowed but now seemingly lost-forever tonic. Before the tonic has even been fairly established, in other words, Haydn (like Mozart in his Fantasia) has arrived at a FOP.

Fantasia As Metaphor

ex. 11-10b Franz Joseph Haydn, Creation, Vorstellung des Chaos in piano reduction, mm. 37–44

Fantasia As Metaphor

ex. 11-10c Franz Joseph Haydn, Creation, Vorstellung des Chaos in piano reduction, mm. 48–59

A fairly extended passage (mm. 26–30) that seems to stalk a cadence on E♭ major, the normal subsidiary region of a C-minor binary structure, suggests that Haydn’s overall plan follows the broad outlines of “sonata form.” That impression is strengthened by the passage beginning in m. 37 (Ex. 11-10b), which has all the earmarks of a retransition. But when the moment of truth arrives (m. 40), in place of the full tonic triad the hollow unison C returns, now hammered out seven times for emphasis. We are still lost in “infinite empty space.”

Only on the last forlorn try, beginning at m. 48 (Ex. 11-10c), does Haydn allow a full cadence on C minor to occur, pianissimo. What normally happens at the beginning—again compare Mozart’s C-minor Fantasia—only gets to happen at the end. And here, too, there is an added metaphorical dimension, quickly made explicit by the entry of a bass singer impersonating the angel Raphael, who intones the opening words of the Book of Genesis: “In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The imminence of Creation has been announced. But its first forecast was not the Angel’s speech; it came wordlessly, in the soft C-minor triad played by the strings in mm. 58–59, finally fulfilling, in a whisper, the promise of form.

The familiar biblical account now continues in a remarkable recitative in which the chorus, which alone may impersonally represent the voice of God, takes part. Of the suddenly radiant passage (Ex. 11-11) that follows the first act of Creation (“… and there was LIGHT”), Haydn once exclaimed, “It was not I who wrote that, but some higher power that guided my hand.” All it is, though, is an ordinary (if unusually assertive) authentic cadence on C, of a kind that not only Haydn but every composer alive at the time, whether great or mediocre, wrote every single day. It is the very special context that creates its overwhelmingly fraught significance, reminding us that what freights any utterance with meaning is never confined to its bare immanent “content,” but is the product of an interaction between sender, context, and receiver(s).

Of course the role of orchestration (that is, tone color) in producing the stunning effect of the passage should not be underestimated. Indeed, orchestration has been playing an almost unprecedented role throughout the Representation of Chaos as a “nebular” metaphor. Swirling figures in the woodwinds, including a couple of spectacular runs for the flute and for the still-novel clarinet, contribute tellingly to the uncanny effect of the whole, and it is the woodwinds and brass, entering suddenly en masse after a long silence, that produce the sublime and somewhat terrifying radiance at the appearance of God’s light. The poetic art of orchestration, seemingly “created” here before our ears (but in fact prefigured in the opera house, as we know full well from Mozart’s Don Giovanni), would reach an unimagined peak at the hands of the increasingly metaphor-minded composers of the incipient nineteenth century.

Nor is that all that Haydn bequeathed to them in the astounding Introduction to The Creation. Its tonal trajectory, too, from a dark and murky “unformed” C minor to a radiantly triumphant C major, became a topos—a narrative archetype—that would be replayed again and again in many expressive and dramatic contexts.


(24) Quoted in Julie Anne Vertrees, “Mozart’s String Quartet K. 465: The History of a Controversy,” Current Musicology 17 (1974): 97.

(25) Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis, Vol.V (London: Oxford University Press, 1937), p. 115.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11008.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11008.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11008.xml