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Listening for Tertiary Rhetoric in Haydn’s Op. 77 String Quartets

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In a pair of recent essays, Elaine Sisman has advanced a novel approach to the critical analysis of eighteenth-century instrumental works whose invention and publication fall within the familiar custom of the opus group. Citing George Kennedy’s distinction between two species of rhetoric—primary (the speech act itself) and secondary (involved with the reflective practice of rhetorical analysis)—Sisman proposes a third kind, a tertiary rhetoric by which we may imagine the works in an opus group to be engaged in conversation among themselves. Because the rhetorical field envisaged by Sisman’s concept normally comprises a full set of six works (or two sub-groups of three each), the possibilities of tertiary rhetoric are naturally limited in an opus that a composer has left unfinished—limited but not necessarily vitiated. In a famous case of the unfinished opus, Haydn’s Op. 77, which comprises just two quartets, we can discern an array of complementary relationships, stylistic dichotomies, and telling points of intersection by which the two pieces are variously opposed or bound together. The strands of an imaginary dialogue are thus in place, a musical conversation from which fresh insight into the music and its composer can be gained as we listen to the quartets’ discourse over such topics as tonal orientation, thematic construction, motivic process, ensemble play, rhetorical strategy, and the ingredients of structural cohesion.