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Salons 1 & 2 • Thursday evening, 7:30–10:30

Musical Topics in Opera and Ballet

Yayoi Uno Everett (University of Illinois at Chicago), Chair
Robert Hatten (University of Texas at Austin), Respondent

Gregory J. Decker (Bowling Green State University) 

Secondary Topical Strategies in Handel's Opera Seria

Clive McClelland (University of Leeds) 

Tempesta and the Myth of Sturm und Drang

Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska (Northwestern University) 

Spiritual Implications of the Sacred Hymn Topic and the Romanesca Schema in Beethoven’s Fidelio

Johanna Frymoyer (Indiana University) 

Metrical Phase Shift and Dance Topics in Stravinsky's Ballets

Yayoi Uno Everett (University of Illinois at Chicago)

The Pianto as a Topical Signifier in Contemporary Operas by John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Kaija Saariaho

Abstracts

Topic theory has been richly augmented by scholarly contributions to the OUP’s Handbook of Topic Theory (Mirka 2014) and other recent publications. Moving beyond Leonard Ratner’s description of topics as “a thesaurus of characteristic figures” in Classic music, scholars have stipulated more rigorous criteria for identifying topics and their expressive and formal functions in socio-historical contexts. However, aside from Wye Jamison Allanbrook’s writing on Mozartean operas (1983; 2014) and Clive McClelland’s work on ombra and supernatural elements in opera (2012; 2014), analytical application of post-Ratnerian topic theory has focused primarily on the importation of styles and genres in instrumental genres and secondarily on dramatic works.

This special session aims to expand the scope of current studies on musical topics through their application to operas and ballets from the late Baroque to the present. How do musical topics reinforce, expand, or alter their existing meanings and functions as agents of dramatic expression? What formal strategies have composers developed in foregrounding new or existing topics to this end? How can we enhance topic-based analysis through its intersection with theories of meter, harmonic schemata, literary aesthetics, and narrative? In shedding light on these questions, this panel presents five papers that examine the formal, expressive, and symbolic functions of musical topics in a range of dramatic works.

Secondary Topical Strategies in Handel's Opera Seria

Gregory J. Decker (Bowling Green State University)

The semantic importance of musical styles and genres in the early eighteenth century is often viewed within the framework of the Classical style: topics from the late Baroque are valued as gateways to the interpretation of later music, but their hermeneutic usefulness is not often explored in earlier contexts. This is likely because immediate musical oppositions common in the Classical style are not generally present in the late Baroque. I argue, however, that topics are a principal component of the semiotics of Baroque opera seria, specifically in works by G. F. Handel. Handel’s primary topical strategy was to employ one topic in each solo aria such that the interaction of topics, lyric, and drama lead to an interpretation of the featured character. However, there are other, less pervasive strategies for topical signification present in Handel’s operas.

Perhaps the most common secondary strategy involves what I have termed topical reversal, in which a topic is used in a manner that is antithetical to its typical appearance or dramatic associations. Another secondary strategy sometimes found in Handel’s operas is the use of a topical region or theme, in which one particular topic is used for several successive (or nearly successive) arias or is foregrounded across the work, suggesting comparison of its different iterations. Finally, although only one topic is expected per aria or movement in Baroque music, I posit that Handel sometimes used two topics simultaneously. I will provide examples of these three secondary topical strategies, speculate on their frequency, and offer interpretations.

Tempesta and the Myth of Sturm und Drang

Clive McClelland (University of Leeds)

Tempesta is a term recently coined to apply to music that exhibits agitated or violent characteristics in order to evoke terror and chaos. Features of the style include fast tempo, rapid scale passages, driving rhythmic figurations, strong accents, full textures, and robust instrumentation including prominent brass and timpani. Music of this type was used for storm scenes, which in operas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are almost invariably of supernatural origin, and other frightening experiences such as pursuit (especially by demons or furies), madness, and rage.

This kind of “stormy” music has acquired the label Sturm und Drang, implying a relationship to German literature which is erroneous. Haydn’s so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies exhibit characteristics that are no different stylistically to the depictions of storms in other genres. There is no evidence of Haydn suffering from some kind of personal crisis in his middle years. Moreover, there are many topical references to tempesta in his subsequent symphonic output, not to mention the instrumental works of many of his contemporaries.

Sturm und Drang is therefore a term that was never really fit for purpose. A more appropriate aesthetic context is the emergence of Gothic literature and art, and of ideas about the “sublime of terror,” which began emerging earlier in the century. “Stormy” music was capable of producing an emotional response of some magnitude, and was therefore a powerful tool in the composer’s expressive armory. As the fast counterpart to ombra, the term tempesta must be seen as more appropriate.

Spiritual Implications of the Sacred Hymn Topic and the Romanesca Schema in Beethoven’s Fidelio

Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska (Northwestern University)

The “sacred hymn topic” (McKee 2007)—used for priests’ scenes in eighteenth-century opera—includes among its attributes chorale texture, slow tempo, major mode, and a prominent I-V-vi opening shared with the Romanesca schema (Gjerdingen 2007). No priests appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio, yet he deployed this musical sign in two significant moments of his opera. This paper provides empirical evidence of the religious connotations of the Romanesca and examines the interactions between topic, schema, and tonal structure to expose some previously overlooked spiritual elements of Fidelio.

In the recitative “Abscheulicher!”, Leonore’s tormented spirits find a safe C major haven suffused with pastoral signifiers. This apparently stable tonal space eventually dissolves into a modulation—metaphorically upwards—to E major, a key historically associated with heavens. The following aria, “Komm Hoffnung,” is a prayer to Hope that begins as a sacred hymn topic. This juxtaposition of topics and keys resembles the opposition between the mundane and the divine, depicting Leonore as a spiritual figure rising above ordinary experience. In the Trio “Euch werde Lohn,” she gives his husband a piece of bread singing another sacred hymn after a modulation—metaphorically downwards—from A major into C major. Drawing on the historical association between the Romanesca and the Benedictus of the Mass, I interpret the tonal descent as another musical analogy, which turns the lovers’ reencounter into a moment of Holy Communion. My analyses suggest that Beethoven’s music characterizes Leonore, an emblem of marital fidelity, as a priestess rather than a loving wife.

Metrical Phase Shift and Dance Topics in Stravinsky's Ballets

Johanna Frymoyer (Indiana University)

For the dances and marches of the eighteenth-century topical lexicon, meter is a defining characteristic (Ratner 1980; Allanbrook 1983). Although many of these topics are observed in works of the early twentieth century, the metrical irregularity of this repertory raises challenging epistemological and interpretive questions about how this music can sustain such tokens. This study uses the concept of metrical phase shift to articulate “normative” or unmarked (Hatten 1994) behavior for dance topics in Stravinsky’s ballets. Woodruff (2006) uses metrical phase shift to show how surface irregularity in Stravinsky can be understood as movement between evenly staggered phases of a single prevailing meter. By privileging a single metric identity, this framework helps to identify and refine the interpretation of metrically-defined topics in modernist repertory. Caution must be exercised when interpreting topics in Stravinsky’s music, because metrical phase shift occurs frequently in Stravinsky’s music, potentially rendering it an unmarked characteristic. This point is illustrated through a reconsideration of irony in the “Royal March” from L’histoire du Soldat. In exploring topics through this approach, one also gains greater clarity into the phenomenon of metrical phase shift itself. Whereas Woodruff identifies work-specific motives as instrumental to the perception of phase shift, closer examination of passages from The Rite of Spring and L’histoire reveals that such metrically-constrained motives often belong to broader topical identities. It is through the topics’ figurae (Rumph 2011, 2014), such as stock accompaniment patterns and characteristic rhythmic motives, that the metrical identity is projected.

The Pianto as a Topical Signifier in Contemporary Operas by John Adams, Thomas Adès, and Kaija Saariaho

Yayoi Uno Everett (University of Illinois at Chicago)

Raymond Monelle traces the earliest example of the pianto motif as a signifier of suffering and sorrow to Giaches de Wert’s “Crudele acerba inesorabil morte.” Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas cements its dramatic and expressive function within the lament genre. However, Danuta Mirka argues for the pianto’s provisional topical status in the eighteenth-century musical discourse by showing how it is subsumed within the Empfindsamkeit topic. In nineteenth-century instrumental music, the motif becomes further unmoored from its earlier dramatic contexts as it turns into a ubiquitous expressive agent of Romantic yearning. Drawing on Hatten’s criteria for analyzing topics (2014), one may say that the motif loses its markedness within a topical field saturated by chromaticism.

This paper analyzes the pianto’s role in contemporary operas and explores its intertextual scope and markedness as a topical signifier in reviving dramatic and expressive connotations of past operatic conventions. Drawing from a corpus study of dramatic and instrumental works composed between 1972-2005, I identify two types of pianto as topical signifier: a descending figure accompanied by a lament bass (Type A) and alternating upward and downward figures (appoggiaturas) over a static or walking bass (Type B). The formal and expressive functions of these types will be illustrated through an analysis of excerpts from Thomas Adès’s The Tempest (2002), John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005), and Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater (2005). The pianto’s iconic reference to “weeping” is replaced by its broader symbolic function in shaping the narrative trajectory of each opera.