Emanuel Aloys Förster: String Quartets, Opp. 7, 16, and 21

By Nancy November

After completing the first chapter of my book on Beethoven’s middle-period string quartets, opp. 59, 74 and 95 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), I felt dissatisfied. The intention of that chapter had been to survey composers, composition, and in general the “cultivation” of string quartets in Beethoven’s milieu. But it had become clear to me that justice could not be done to the subject in one chapter. In that context, too, the emphasis would have to remain on Beethoven, whereas there were clearly many other interesting personalities and works to consider as well. As part of my reaction to writing that chapter, I decided to edit the only string quartets published by Beethoven’s contemporary Emanuel Aloys Förster (1748–1823): three sets of works, with six quartets in each, opp. 7, 16, and 21.

Förster’s name comes up with some frequency when one researches Beethoven’s quartets, yet his quartets are no longer part of the standard chamber music repertoire, nor are they much discussed by musicologists. This neglect stems partly from the fact that only three of Förster’s string quartets were available in score until recently. But it also reflects the fact that his works are invariably considered solely in comparison with Beethoven’s string quartets. Exploration of the “influence” between Beethoven and Förster is typically restricted to Förster’s first set of quartets, op. 7 (1794), without detailed consideration of the music. It struck me that our general understanding of this important composer, and his contributions to Viennese string quartet culture in particular, are hampered by a narrowness of vision.

Förster’s career trajectory differs from Beethoven’s, and also from those of such contemporaries as Paul Wranitzky (1756–1808) and Adalbert Gyrowetz (1763–1850), in that he remained a specialist in chamber music. A composer of chamber music in Vienna at this time would ordinarily have had a more diverse compositional output, as well as other sources of income, in order to sustain a musical career. Förster’s case illustrates what was likely to happen to composers trying to make a name for themselves in chamber music alone, without also seeking their fortune in the theater. The fact is, it was difficult.

To be sure, Förster did not just compose string quartets—although he wrote a great deal of them (around fifty). He also composed chamber music in various other genres: piano sonatas and variations (including a contribution, titled Capriccio, to the Diabelli variations published in the Vaterländischer Künstlerverein in 1823), violin sonatas, duets, trios, quintets, a sextet, and an octet. His chamber music with piano includes three pairs of quartets for piano and strings, published 1794 and 1796, and three keyboard quintets, published 1795.

Still, Förster struggled to secure his reputation. He was not as active in publishing his music as many contemporary Viennese composers; while he published and sold some of his works at his own cost, many others, including around thirty string quartets, survive only in unpublished form. Why did so few of his works appear in print? It is difficult to determine the specific reasons, but considerations of efficiency and economy may have played a role. Förster seems to have been in the habit of saving up works for later publication, so that, for example, several sets of earlier works appeared one after the other around 1800. It was, after all, still common for chamber music to circulate in manuscript form at this time.

What sort of works are Förster’s quartets, and how did they fit into the chamber music market? An anonymous review of Förster’s second book of op. 16 string quartets, published in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in March 1799, hints at the nature of Förster’s market and provides insights into the composer’s aesthetics, which did not always align with the mainstream tastes of his day: “These quartets will excite more interest through the bizarre, humorous, and searching aspects of their performance than by pleasure and spontaneity, and therefore only receive applause from those who sympathize with the composer in these aims” (Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung 1, no. 23 [1799], 366).

What is striking here is the similar terms to those used by Haydn’s critics at the same period, especially with respect to the music’s bizarre aspects and “singular, spontaneous humor.” Compare Carl Ludwig Junker, who, likening Haydn to Shakespeare, observed: “No one will deny that the single . . . governing feeling in Hayden [sic] is wayward, bizarre;—that it expresses itself without restraint” (Carl Ludwig Junker, Zwanzig Componisten: eine Skizze [Bern, 1776], 64). In part, this humor is praised, where the reviewer recognizes that it gives rise to imaginative, individualized roles for each voice, as in the trio of the fourth quartet from op. 16. But certain aspects of Förster’s style in op. 16 displeased both this same critic and the popular market; in particular, Förster’s thematic development was criticized for being too “stagey” and overblown, as opposed to cleverly worked out. Förster, like Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, found that the string quartet was an ideal medium for compositional experiments and especially for new theatrical techniques that would appeal more to the connoisseur than to the mass music market or the conservative critic.

One of Förster’s main developments in string-quartet writing is a hymn-like adagio with an elaborate, ornamental unfolding, possibly inspired by Haydn. This type of movement is found among the adagios of Haydn’s later quartets, a locus classicus being op. 76, no. 6. Beethoven, too, deploys such slow movements in works like piano sonatas opp. 10, no. 1, and 31, no. 1. The four adagios found in Förster’s op. 21 are excellent examples. The A-flat major adagio from op. 21, no. 1, for instance, is an extended instrumental aria for the first violin, in which the lower voices nevertheless do not always serve a purely accompanimental function. The textures Förster deploys are at times reminiscent of dramatic dialogue, also found in the slow movements of some of Haydn’s early quartets, such as op. 17, no. 5, and op. 20, no. 2. In such movements, Förster demonstrates two key features of contemporary Viennese chamber music for strings: vocality (in accord with contemporary conceptions of aria) and idiomatic string technique; the latter is evident in his frequent use of portato (gently detached articulation executed in a single bow stroke in the accompanying voices) and of first-violin roulades that lie nicely under the hand.

Nancy NovemberNancy November received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2003 and is currently associate professor in musicology at the University of Auckland. Her research and teaching interests center on the music of the late eighteenth century: aesthetics, analysis, and performance history and practices. With a Humboldt Fellowship and a Marsden Grant from the New Zealand Royal Society, she completed a monograph entitled Beethoven’s Theatrical Quartets: Opp. 59, 74, and 95 (Cambridge University Press, 2013). A further book, entitled Cultivating String Quartets in Beethoven’s Vienna, is forthcoming (Boydell Press, 2017).