'A New Type of Part Writing': Notation and Performance in Beethoven's Late String Quartets

Change log
Stroud, Rachel 

Beethoven’s late string quartets are among his most extraordinary and elusive works. A source of fascination to performers, audiences and scholars alike for nearly two centuries, they are defined by an aesthetic of ‘difficulty’. This thesis argues that one crucial source of difficulty lies in Beethoven’s eccentric uses of notation in the quartets – a difficulty that has had profound implications for the future study and performance of the works. Mirroring the stylistic pluralities of the late quartets themselves, issues of notation and performance are explored through a variety of methodologies, drawn from the digital humanities, Peircean semiotics, anthropology and critical theory. Although the late quartets are the central impetus, this thesis is ultimately about the relational nature of creativity. It conceives of notation not as a textual codification of the composer’s intentions, a private act of composition in the mind, but rather as a mediating material that describes, enacts, engenders, and is dependent upon, social activity.

Using Wagner’s notion of Beethoven’s ‘Hearing Eyes’, Chapter 1 considers the influences of Beethoven’s material, writerly approach to composition in his later years and the peculiarly textual emphasis of the quartets’ early reception. Through an analogy with maps and scores, it highlights the importance of considering notation from the perspective of individual performers’ parts. Chapter 2 situates the notational complexity of the late quartets within Beethoven’s entire output through the use of computational methods and statistical analysis. In contrast, Chapter 3 maps a networked understanding of Beethoven’s notation and explores its inextricable entanglement in the social, political and technological currents of 1820s Vienna. Using Alfred Gell’s theory of art and agency, Chapter 4 extends this network to include non-human actors and examines the different ‘material lives’ of the string quartets, both past and present. Ethnographic methods and the insights of twenty-first-century performers are employed to situate this material agency in practice in Chapter 5. The final chapter engages Theodor Adorno’s seminal work on Beethoven’s late style to mediate a very personal source of insight into the unique difficulties of the late quartets: my own, as performer, scholar and listener.

Marston, Nicholas
Gill, Satinder
Beethoven, Notation, Performance, Late String Quartets, String Quartet, Ethnography, Music21, Group Creativity, Social Dynamics
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge