sample paragraph from ‘Musical narrativity’

Much depends on representationality (or “aboutness”), relative to an art form that, by contrast with written narrative, is non-propositional and, if referential at all, not stably so—thus also in contrast with film narrative, which is usually straightforwardly referential and usually offers a mimetic presentation of characters, actions, and settings that are amenable to intersubjectively agreed propositional descriptions. The H.C. Anderson story of the girl who trod on a loaf that the musicologist Susan McClary cites has the advantage of incontrovertibly being about a girl and a puddle and a loaf of bread, whatever else it is “really” about. Whereas the aboutness McClary identifies in the Schubert Impromptu Op. 90, no. 2, an aboutness that registers a character and events, has no such community-ratified status. Her identification of “a blithe little tune” that “commits a fatal blunder” which “unleashes unexpected violence” (20) and leads to “annihilation” (29) will be regarded by some as fanciful personification. It is not the story I get from the Impromptu, or not how I would describe what its narrative is about, insofar as I understand its narrative. But I would defend her—and everyone’s—right to make such narrativity claims. McClary is ambitious in her argument that much 18th and 19th century instrumental music enacts a shared narrative of individualism absorbed back into society. She also leans heavily on the idea of the narrativity of tone- or key-progressions, and of melodic line as character (conventionally deployed frequently, but used in unexpected ways in the Schubert impromptu she discusses); it is not clear that these arguments are intended to serve as more than analogy and metaphor. Rather than equate melody or theme with character, I have proposed above that instruments or orchestral sections, playing particular lines, might be characters in the narrative that a symphony or concerto relates, and that collectively the orchestra establishes that essential of narrative, a situation. Keys, inversions, and modulations are important resources for the marking of sequence or progression, but so too are changes of rhythm, tempo, volume, dominant pitch, orchestration, and melodic elaboration without change of key. The piano or violin sonata might present the orchestral “instrument equals character” equation with a problem, if the latter is assumed to imply that all sonatas carry narratives about just one or at most two characters. But that is not a necessary assumption: the pianoforte, especially, often impresses us as a “small orchestra”, with timbres and pitches and contrasts of the legato and the percussive so varied that we “hear” different instruments being played in the course of a great sonata.


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