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Tom Pankhurst: Paper read at HuMAC 2003


Diatonic dramas and choleric cadences: A semiotic approach to tonal structure in Beethoven and Nielsen
(read by Tom Pankhurst at HuMAC 2003)

Part II - a diatonic drama in Beethoven IV
As shown in Example 2, the first subject group (after the slow introduction) is spanned by a middleground descent from scale-degrees 3 to 1 (projecting the modality of "want-to-be"). However, the various repetitions of the anacrusic Figure labelled a in the example, emphasize rather the "want-to-do" of the initial ascent that spans the introduction. Looking at the boxed incipits, you can see that this anacrusic Figure is an elaboration of a motion from scale degree 2 to 3 (C to D) which itself projects the modality of "want-to-do" through an ascending semiquaver scale of a fifth. The vigour of the anacrusis, played fortissimo, also brings into play the Greimasian modality of can, which Tarasti equates with the 'technical rendering, virtuosity, [and] power' (1994: 90) of a musical subject. Thus, as well as projecting "want-to-do" onto this Figure we might also project "can" (a quiet, less energetic Figure on the other hand might be described in terms of "not-can"). The musical context gives the impression that the "can" and "want-to-do" of the rising fifth to scale degree 2 somehow transfer their energy to scale-degree 3. Apart from the metrical placement, this is largely because 2 (C) is subordinate to 3 in the context of a middleground prolongation of Bb major.

Example 2 (click to open new window)

I have so far discussed in this paper the conjunction of subjects with what Greimas calls 'objective values' (such as consonance or resolution), but this transfer of energies seems to me to be analogous to the other type of 'performance' that Greimas describes: the transmission of modal values (1987: 80). He points out that such a transfer between two subjects presupposes domination of one subject by the other, and I want to suggest that as the exposition of the Beethoven unfolds, scale-degree 2 comes to dominate 3 and ultimately the transfer of modal values is reversed.

The changing hierarchical relationship between scale-degrees 3 and 2 as the exposition moves from tonic to dominant is obviously inherent to sonata form, but Beethoven draws attention to this normative turn of events. The structural dissonance of tonic and dominant in the exposition is thus dramatized, something that can be understood in terms of Greimasian notions of narrative action.

Example 3 (click to open new window)

Looking at incipit b on Example 3. Whilst it is a common transitional device to retain scale-degree 2 against a bass progression from supertonic to dominant, the repetition of C here considerably labours the point. Just as the anacrusis foregrounds the "want-to-do" of the initial ascent, this repetition of emphasizes the change in its hierarchical status. This change can be represented on the semiotic square shown in Figure 3. The domination of C by D in the first subject, as exemplified in the anacrusic Figure, is in the process of being negated in the transition, moving on the semiotic square from subordinated to not- subordinated. C is not, however yet a subordinating force in its own right.

Figure 3: semiotic square of hierarchical relations

The dominant, and thus the new status of scale-degree 2 is confirmed at the beginning of the second subject (incipit c), the second half of which comprises a slower version of the ascending fifth-progression seen in the anacrusis. The climax of the second subject shown in incipit d however, is marked by insistent repetition of c3 before local closure is achieved with a descent from . The beginning of this descent, at bar 135, is decorated by a D neighbour, so the hierarchical relationship has thus been reversed, as C becomes the subordinating note of the pair.

Now that this role-reversal is complete, incipit e shows how D appears first as a tentative pianissimo neighbour note and finally with a crescendo to forte. The crescendo quavers project "can do" which, as with the anacrusis at the beginning, appears to transfer to the C to which it resolves. It is interesting that in the recapitulation, where the transposition of the second subject group material resolves the structural dominant/tonic tension, the opening anacrusis is also re-composed. As seen in incipit f, instead of dramatizing the subordination of 2 it now simply anticipates 3. One might even suggest that D has now moved towards the position of non-subordinating: its subordination of C is longer pertinent.

I am not suggesting that this sequence of events is somehow what the exposition is about (in fact the development suggests that the anacrusis itself is a more plausible narrative subject) but merely that this aspect of the movement can be understood as narrative in this way. Rather argue about why it might be useful to do so at this point, I want to move on to my next example and consider such issues at the end.

Part I Part II Part III
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4
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