Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert

Interpreting Musical Gestures, Topics, and Tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert

by Robert S. Hatten

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Robert Hatten’s new book is a worthy successor to his Musical Meaning in Beethoven, which established him as a front-rank scholar... in questions of musical meaning.... [B]oth how he approaches musical works and what he says about them are timely and to the point. Musical scholars in both musicology and theory will find much of value here, and will find their notions of musical meaning challenged and expanded." —Patrick McCreless

This book continues to develop the semiotic theory of musical meaning presented in Robert S. Hatten’s first book, Musical Meaning in Beethoven (IUP, 1994). In addition to expanding theories of markedness, topics, and tropes, Hatten offers a fresh contribution to the understanding of musical gestures, as grounded in biological, psychological, cultural, and music-stylistic competencies. By focusing on gestures, topics, tropes, and their interaction in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, Hatten demonstrates the power and elegance of synthetic structures and emergent meanings within a changing Viennese Classical style.

Musical Meaning and Interpretation—Robert S. Hatten, editor

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253030276
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 10/27/2017
Series: Musical Meaning and Interpretation
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 376
Sales rank: 920,568
File size: 20 MB
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About the Author

Robert S. Hatten is Professor of Music Theory at the University of Texas at Austin. He is author of Musical Meaning in Beethoven: Markedness, Correlation, and Interpretation.

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Semiotic Grounding in Markedness and Style: Interpreting a Style Type in the Opening of Beethoven's Ghost Trio, Op. 70, no. 1

Beethoven's Piano Trio in D Major (Ghost), Op. 70, no. 1, was composed in 1809. Its minor-mode slow movement, Largo assai ed espressivo, is filled with such chromaticism and tremolos that Czerny (1970: 97) associated it with the scene from Shakespeare where Hamlet encounters the ghost of his father. William Kinderman (1995: 134) notes that the uncanny attribution is literally warranted; however, the connection is not with Hamlet but with Macbeth. In 1808 Beethoven was sketching ideas for an opera based on a Macbeth libretto by Heinrich von Collin, and sketches for the abandoned opera project are found interspersed with ideas for the slow movement of the trio.

If a semiotic approach to musical meaning depended on such programmatic suggestions, I might well have chosen the slow movement for investigation. But it is to the decidedly less gloomy first movement that I wish to direct attention, specifically to the opening theme complex. I plan to demonstrate how we can come to a deeper understanding of the expressive meaning of this opening by pursuing evidence from a variety of perspectives. My semiotic approach is both structuralist, in reconstructing the stylistic types that correlate with general expressive meanings, and hermeneutic, in interpreting the strategic designs through which a composer individualizes and particularizes the tokens of those types, thereby achieving unique expressive meanings. And my approach is directed toward understanding how music has meaning, not merely what it might mean, from the perspective of a historically informed reconstruction of the style. In the course of teasing out the subtleties of the opening of the trio, I will demonstrate the breadth of my semiotic approach, not as a substitute for other kinds of analysis, but as a means of interpreting their results and revealing further aspects of the work's expressive design.

A characterization of the first theme complex (Example 1.1), from the opening up to the counterstatement launching the transition at m. 21, might read like this: "With an energetic burst akin to the opening of the Piano Sonata, Op. 10, no. 3, the unison opening motive, x, sequences upward before breaking off with a surprise shift to F[??]. Sustained in the cello like a written-out fermata, this F[??] is then supported by a consonant B_ in the piano, before moving to an F# above a cadential [??] and the elided beginning in the cello of a more lyrical first theme, y." This description blends structural terminology (motive, sequence, cadential [??], elision) with expressive characterizations ("energetic," "surprise shift"), and even draws intertextually on a similar piano sonata opening. A closer analysis, perhaps inspired by Schenkerian voice-leading and an intuition about elliptical structures, might claim that the B[flat]–F consonant fifth in m. 6 implies an unstable German augmented sixth, which resolves in contrary motion by half steps to a cadential [??], and thus the whole opening may be understood as a briefly interrupted expansion of a key-defining progression. Students of Leonard B. Meyer (1973) might emphasize the delayed realization of an implied F# (deferred by F[??]), or point out that the thematic arrival in m. 7 is not congruent with the proper arrival of the tonic in the bass, which is delayed until m. 11. And disciples of Rudoph Réti (1951) would delight in discovering that the cello idea, "y," is an augmented inversion of the opening "x" motive, suggesting the presence of a unifying Grundgestalt, Schoenberg's term for a generative thematic contour or cell.

More historically oriented interpreters would cite E. T. A. Hoffmann's instructive review of 1813 (in Charlton 1989: 300–24), observing that what I have labeled as motives x and y are, interestingly, identified as first and second themes by Hoffmann, although he apparently is unaware of their inversional relationship. Based on his review of the Op. 70 piano trios and his better-known review of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Hoffmann is recognized as being the first music critic to demonstrate the organic, motivic, and generational process through which Beethoven develops his larger heroic-period forms. Hoffmann concentrates on the "ingenious, contrapuntal texture" of the development, which he presents in full score, not otherwise available for study in this form at the time of his article. He describes crucial modulations and provides a figured bass reduction of the rewritten transition in the recapitulation, foreshadowing the advent of Schenkerian reductions. Hoffmann is also credited as one of the earliest critics (but see Momigny) to combine structural and expressive insights in his analyses. In this review he comments on the character of the "second theme" (beginning with my motive "y"), noting that it "expresses a genial serenity, a cheerful, confident awareness of its own strength and substance." I think we might be in general agreement with his assessment, although he offers us no particular reasoning to support it.

After this series of observations, both obvious and subtle, what more is there left to say? We have historical warrant for both theoretical analysis and expressive interpretation of the passage. We have revealed its secrets with respect to the implied German augmented sixth in m. 6, the noncongruence of thematic and tonal arrivals in mm. 7 and 11, respectively, and even the organic derivation of "y" from "x." Indeed, what more could a semiotic approach offer, assuming we have applied such a range of productive analytical and historical approaches?

A great deal more! For what I have presented thus far is merely analogous to parsing a poem, analyzing its syntax, and offering a subjective impression of one of its moods. We need not blithely accept Schenker's insistence that pitch structure, with a little metric interpretation thrown in, reveals the "true content" of music (as Schenker implies in the title to one of his Meisterwerk [1930] essays: "Beethovens 3. Sinfonie zum erstenmal in ihren wahren Inhalt dargestellt" [my italics]). Nor should we stop at what sensitive ears such as Hoffmann's may have heard. Instead, we can further explore how the structures we have discovered might be based on typical meanings in the style, and how they might be creating unique kinds of meanings within the constraints of that style. I call the first kind of meaning a stylistic correlation, based upon the generalization of types; the second kind of meaning is a strategic interpretation, and it is based upon the creation of tokens. A helpful way to explore the meanings of stylistic types is to investigate the structural oppositions that enable us to identify them, and that keep them systematically coherent. Oppositions in a style are asymmetrically structured as marked versus unmarked (see the Introduction), and their markedness values map onto similarly marked-unmarked oppositions in musical meaning. An example will illustrate.

I earlier analyzed the implied augmented-sixth chord in mm. 6–7 as resolving to a cadential [??]. But this [??] chord does not sound cadential; rather, it evokes a very strong sense of arrival, hence, my coining of the term "arrival [??]" (Hatten 1994: 15, 97). Other examples may be found in the slow movement of the Hammerklavier (m. 14), as well as the coda to the first movement of Op. 101 (m. 90). Notice that the rhetorical effect of resolution of dissonance, as a kind of "breakthrough" arrival, is more telling at the moment the [??] occurs than at the actual cadence. Here the [??] is not only an arrival but an initiation — it launches an important theme and thus functions, however poetically, as a structural downbeat for the "y" theme (while deferring a more powerful, root tonic structural downbeat for the cadence in m. 21 that launches the transition). The lyrical "y" theme unfolds above what at first suggests an ongoing dominant pedal, but harmonically the theme does not sound unstable — unlike the agitated dominant pedal points enhancing the (tragic) obsessiveness of the second themes in the first movements of Op. 2, no. 1 (in the relative major, A[flat], but with mixtural [flat]6) and Op. 31, no. 2 (in A minor, the dominant of D minor). The stability of the "y" theme is evidence of a semiotic (and contextual) reinterpretation of dissonance; although the [??] eventually resolves, it does not do so with a traditional 5–1 cadential bass, but rather slips up by step to tonic (mm. 10–11). Thus, the [??] is no longer as dependent on its resolution to a dominant, but stands on its own, as a poetically enhanced tonic. There are several motivations for this consonant effect. The theme sounds presentational, as though elevated, and on a pedestal. The dominant pedal provides this pedestal effect, and thus it can be heard as a separate "strand" independent of the stable tonic with which we assume a theme would begin. But the pedal 5 also resolves the instability and rhetorical questioning of the implied German augmented sixth. Just as poignant lowered 6 resolves to 5 in the bass, the questioning lowered 3 is pulled up to raised 3 in the upper voice. The positive, Picardy-third effect of this resolution also enhances the relative stability of the subsequent measures, and the glowing consonance of the major triad offers perceptual affordance to this interpretation. Finally, when we hear the augmented inversion in "y" as a (noble, expansive) transformation of the (hectic) opening motive "x," its glowing harmonic presentation (as an arrival [??] supporting a tonic over pedestal dominant) sounds truly fitting.

These are but a few of the contextual reasons for semiotically reinterpreting a [??] that in traditional theory would be interpreted merely as a dissonant sixth and fourth above the dominant chord's root, waiting to resolve to the fifth and third. How might markedness contribute to the explanation of this instance of style growth? To begin, the opposition between minor and major (exemplified between mm. 5–6 on the one hand, and mm. 1–4 and 7 on the other) can be quite powerful. In m. 5 the turn to minor clouds an otherwise positive emotional state with an uncertainty that is potentially poignant — perhaps a forewarning of the tragic. In m. 7 suspended uncertainty is resolved rather gloriously into the arrival [??], thus encapsulating the potentially negative within the larger embrace of the positive.

In stylistic terms minor is marked within major, and thus m. 5 marks the first expressive crux of a movement that begins with a rather general positive energy. Topically Beethoven's opening suggests a mix of the heroic and hunt-based pastoral, but with such helter-skelter energy that it appears to be setting up a comic reversal. The marked term of an opposition, in this case "minor," correlates with a narrower realm of meaning. Here the mutated third scale degree (F[??]) disrupts with its strong stylistic correlation, interpretable as dysphoric: poignant, or potentially tragic. Major, on the other hand, is typically unmarked in the Classical style and correlates with a much broader realm of meaning — generally, the nontragic, which includes heroic, pastoral, and buffa modes. But when major mode in turn reverses (and resolves) the minor, as in m. 7, it can draw on the marked status of the Picardy third within the realm of minor (Hatten 1994: 42). Thus, m. 7 may be heard as the second expressive crux of the movement. The almost premature, positive resolution of poignant uncertainty also puts its stamp on the expressive genre of the movement as a whole. We can be fairly certain that this movement will have a nontragic outcome (though the issue of F[??] and B[flat] will have its own consequences thematically and tonally).

It would be a misunderstanding to assume that a particular musical event is either simply marked or unmarked; rather, it may entail a number of oppositional relationships, each of which contributes something to the overall interpretation of the event. Thus, the minor mode in mm. 5–6 is both marked with respect to the previous major, and unmarked with respect to the following major. Furthermore, markedness values may actually reverse as styles grow or change. For example, the cadential [??] is marked as unstable relative to its syntactical role in a cadence. As an arrival [??], however, it may be marked as stable relative to its resolution of a German augmented sixth (or other dissonant chord), especially when in conjunction with a strong thematic arrival. The pedal point on a dominant is marked as unstable in most environments, but it may be marked as stable when arising from an arrival [??]. This historical style change — which might be described more neutrally as the contextual migration of a cadential [??] — is exemplified by many works of Franz Liszt, in what has been dubbed the "salvation [??]." Richard Cohn (personal communication) brought to my attention a written account by Gustav Jenner of his composition lessons with Brahms (Frisch 1990: 185–204) in which Brahms cautioned against overuse of this kind of [??]: "As excellent as the effect of this chord can be — naturally I am referring only to cadential six-four chords — it is often nothing but the symptom and in its flabbiness the true reflection of a completely lame and exhausted imagination" (198). The first movement of the FAE Sonata for Violin and Piano, written by Schumann's student Dietrich, provides ample illustration of the rhetorical abuse of arrival [??]'s through overuse. Liszt also uses the arrival [??] to launch a contrasting lyrical theme in major, entirely over a pedestal dominant pedal.

For an example of the noble use of a pedestal dominant in Beethoven, consider the second theme from the first movement of Beethoven's last piano sonata, Op. 111 (Example 1.2a). Here an arrival [??] (m. 50) links resolution of the thematized diminished-seventh chord (m. 49) with the initiation of a positive theme, whose nobility is further cued by dotted rhythms (associated with the ceremonial). The theme would be unstable only to a Schenkerian; phenomenologically it is exquisitely stable — again, as though presented on a pedestal — and only its brevity and parenthetical appearance between diminished-seventh chords attest to its still-illusory status in the expressive drama of the movement. The tragedy of the first movement manages only to hint at this more positive realm. In the coda a resignational emphasis on the minor subdominant leads to a final resolution of the thematized diminished seventh as vii to Picardy-third tonic. But this unsettled coda leads us to expect a more profound transformation, which Beethoven will provide with the transcendent final movement, an expanded set of variations in glowing C major.

The next three examples illustrate an interesting growth process with respect to the arrival [??] as a type in Beethoven's style, and as appropriated by Schubert. In the coda to the finale of Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Cello in A Major, Op. 69, a subito piano marks a rhetorical arrival [??] on the subdominant in the piano (Example 1.2b, m. 195). Note, however, the pedal fifth of the IV chord is already present, and thus the pedestal effect is already in place in the piano part. Instead of the lowered third (F[??]) which would occur with the German augmented sixth (not appropriate as an elaboration of the subdominant), Beethoven employs an augmented dominant of IV, written with an E#. Note also that the cello has the bass, emphasizing the resolution of E# to F#, and producing, in effect, an "arrival [??]" on the subdominant.


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Copyright © 2004 Robert S. Hatten.
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Table of Contents

Part I. Markedness, Topics, and Tropes
1. Semiotic Grounding in Markedness and Style: Interpreting a Style Type in the Opening of Beethoven's Ghost Trio, Op. 70, no. 1
2. Expressive Doubling, Topics, Tropes, and Shifts in Level of Discourse: Interpreting the Third Movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in B<FLAT> Major, Op. 130
3. From Topic to Premise and Mode: The Pastoral in Schubert's Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
4. The Troping of Topics, Genres, and Forms: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler
Part II. Musical Gesture
Introduction to Part II
5. Foundational Principles of Human Gesture
6. Toward a Theory of Musical Gesture
7. Stylistic Types and Strategic Functions of Gestures
8. Thematic Gesture in Schubert: The Piano Sonatas in A Major, D. 959, and A Minor, D. 784
9. Thematic Gesture in Beethoven: Sonata for Piano and Cello in C Major, Op. 102, no. 1
10. Gestural Troping and Agency
Conclusion to Part II
Part III. Continuity and Discontinuity
Introduction to Part III
11. From Gestural Continuity to Continuity as Premise
12. Discontinuity and Beyond
Index of Names and Works
Index of Concepts

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Patrick McCreless

Musical scholars in both musicology and theory will find much of value here, and will find their notions of musical meaning challenged and expanded.

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