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Vernacular Idioms And Topics

Olga Sánchez-Kisielewska (University of Chicago), Chair

Topical Specification of Vernacular Idioms: Understanding the Farruca and the Garrotín as Musical Topics in Spanish Modernism

David Heinsen (University of Texas at Austin)


The interpretation of musical topics when imported into new contexts involves generalizing from specific indexical aspects to broader cultural meanings. There is a risk, however, of overgeneralizing the cultural associations of vernacular idioms that are peripheral to mainstream traditions. In the case of Spanish art music, Eurocentric taxonomies of topical universes broadly account for “Spanish style” as essentialized “local color,” thus ignoring specific folk genres that have their own histories and meanings as preserved during topical formation. 

In this paper, I argue that the two flamenco palos known as farruca and garrotín, genres that are often subsumed under a broader “Spanish style,” may be more productively understood as separate yet related topical signifiers embedded in the political discourse of early 20th-century Spain. First, I define the boundaries of topical identification by evaluating the conventions by which modernist Spanish composers have come to represent these vernacular genres in their art music. Here, I identify and hierarchize constituent features of the topics based on the potential of each characteristic to signify the specific palo, and then classify each token according to its level of abstraction. Second, I present the farruca and garrotín as racialized topics of modernist primitivism, claiming that the two palos were flamenco adaptations of the African American cakewalk that reinforced the alleged “Blackness” of the Spanish Gitano (Goldberg 2015). I conclude with a topical interpretation of Joaquín Turina’s Ritmos (1928) that reads the interplay of these two vernacular topics against the racially charged anti-flamenquista sentiment in Madrid (Llano 2018). 

Supplementary Material(s)

Lyricism in the Subordinate Themes of Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia

Alberto Martin Entrialgo (University of Southampton)

bio for Alberto Martin Entrialgo

Alberto Martín Entrialgo studied Music Theory at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, where he obtained his Bachelor's in 2016 and his Master's in 2018. He is currently working on a PhD at the University of Southampton under the supervision of David Bretherton. His thesis focuses on the persistence of eighteenth-century conventions in the work of the nineteenth-century Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz. In 2019, he was awarded with the Theory and Analysis Graduate Student Prize of the Society for Music Analysis for his paper “Isaac Albéniz as a Galant Composer,” and in 2020, he obtained the UKRI/MITACS Globalink Doctoral Exchange Grant to conduct part of his doctoral research at McGill University under the supervision of William Caplin. His work has appeared or will appear in Music Theory and Analysis, the newsletter of the Society for Music Analysis, and Diagonal: an Ibero- American Music Review, and he has presented papers at the annual conferences of the Society for Music Analysis and the Dutch-Flemish Society for Music Theory.


Throughout most of his compositional career, Albéniz had kept a strong separation between his “Spanish-style” pieces in da capo form on the one hand, and his more academic works in sonata form on the other. In Iberia, however, Albéniz combined the folkloric materials he was most famous for with sonata form. While the “popular” sources of these materials have been frequently pointed out (Mast 1974, and Clark 1999), their exact integration within the sonata-form framework has been overlooked.  In this paper, I will focus on the role of “Spanish-style” coplas as subordinate themes of the sonata-form compositions of Iberia. All these themes have a dolce expression and are mostly cast as folk-inspired forms (the copla, bar-form, or quaternary stanza). They are “tight-knit” and well presented, with regular and square phrase structures and phrase rhythms, using “compound basic ideas” as basic compositional units, statement-response articulations, and large-scale repetitions; these characteristics are a reflection of Albéniz’s fundamentally lyrical conception of the subordinate theme. This paper will unveil Albéniz’s conception of sonata form and explain how some aspects of Spanish folklore fared with certain sonata conventions. It will also—building on the work of Ratner (1980), Rothstein (1989), and Caplin (1998)—contribute to a key and ongoing task in Formenlehre: to define ever more clearly the concrete musical characteristics, phrase structures, and compositional processes that project the formal functionality of main and subordinate themes.

Supplementary Material(s)

Florence Price’s Use of African American Topics in Thumbnail Sketches: A Day in the Life of a Washerwoman

Zachary Lloyd (Florida State University)


Florence Price employs a combination of Western-European compositional techniques and Black vernacular music styles in her four-movement piano suite, Thumbnail Sketches: A Day in the Life of a Washerwoman. In this piece, the use of African American musical styles gives a voice to the titular character, a Black Washerwoman, an all but forgotten figure in American history. Building upon the work of Horace Maxile Jr., I utilize his five African American topics (Call-and-Response, Signifyin(g), Spiritual/Supernatural, Blues, and Jazz) to highlight how Black vernacular music styles are employed by Price in her piano suite. These five topics not only appear together, but often work collaboratively with, or at times against, more traditional European compositional techniques such as tonal planning and classical forms. I examine each movement and offer analytical insights of the topics in use and their relationship to a programmatic reading of the piece. While the evocation of these musical styles is clearly present throughout this work, I highlight how the application of Maxile’s topics allow for a nuanced reading of works where the use of these styles is not as evident. In this analysis, by viewing Florence Price’s use of these musical styles in Thumbnail Sketches, we come to see how Price was able to offer an authentic voice to an often silenced and forgotten figure in American history, the Black washerwoman.