Textural Extremes in Beethoven's String Quartets: Expressive and Formal Functions of Silence and Unison

Open Access
Frederick, Leah Nicole
Area of Honors:
Music Theory
Bachelor of Music
Document Type:
Thesis Supervisors:
  • Eric Mc Kee, Thesis Supervisor
  • Vincent Perez Benitez Jr., Honors Advisor
  • Beethoven
  • String Quartet
  • Texture
  • Formal Function
  • Silence
  • Unison
Beethoven’s command of texture is arguably one of the most expressive musical devices within his compositions. The four voices found in the genre of the string quartet provide the composer with a wide palette of textural possibilities. Among these is a frequently overlooked texture: silence. This texture, or lack thereof, is found throughout all sixteen of Beethoven’s quartets. The normative placement of silence occurs at boundaries, outlining the formal divisions of a piece. Silence is marked when it occurs elsewhere within a work; in this case, the silence communicates expressive meaning. This paper examines Beethoven’s use of such normative and non-normative silences throughout the sonata form movements of his earliest set of six string quartets, Opus 18. Normative silences occur at many different levels, from creating divisions between subphrases to separating entire movements, or even entire quartets within the opus. In contrast, non-normative silences communicate expressive meaning, such as failure of a topic, through their disruption of a melodic or harmonic statement. Although this paper emphasizes the use of silence, it also discusses the use of another extreme texture, that of unison, at significant formal locations. It concludes with a brief glimpse toward the Opus 59 quartets, revealing an evolution of Beethoven’s use of extreme textures, concurrent with his stylistic development into the middle- period quartets. This motivates discussion of potential analytical techniques that could capture the element of texture within all of Beethoven’s works for quartet, or perhaps the entire string quartet literature.