Diatonic dramas and choleric cadences: A semiotic approach to tonal structure in Beethoven and Nielsen
(read by Tom Pankhurst at HuMAC 2003)
Part III - a choleric cadence in Nielsen II
For the moment, I want to move
onto Nielsen's Second Symphony (see Example 4), the four movements of which each portray one of the
Four Temperaments. I have selected a short passage from the impetuous choleric
temperament and I want to look at how it might be understood to embody this
temperament through just a hint of recklessness. There are plenty of places in the this
movement where the music goes more seriously off the rails but a slightly more subtle
instance makes my approach work harder and is therefore a better example.
Example 4 (click to open new window)
Example 4 shows a passage from the middle of the development of the choleric
temperament. E minor intrudes upon Eb minor, culminating in their direct juxtaposition at
bar 208, after which the music swings to, and then settles down in, C minor.
Before considering the effect of other musical parameters, particularly dynamic
and tempo, I want to explore this aspect of the tonal structure in terms of modalities.
Greimas suggests that the modality of knowing 'opens up ... the possibility of a cognitive
rationalization of the universe of meaning' (Greimas & Fontanille 1993: 12). In his musical translation of modalities,
Tarasti largely concentrates on the listener's apprehension of formal and motivic features
but I am interested in applying the modality of "knowing" as a description of tonal
structure from the point of view of a subject within the musical discourse.
The most general expression of "know-how-to-be" from a Schenkerian
perspective might be the capacity of a musical subject to rationalize material within a
tonally closed structure. Closer to the foreground, this capacity might find expression in
the ability to assimilate, for example, a high level of chromaticism into a tonally coherent
progression. Figure 4 shows how the various degrees to which the foreground is
assimilated into a tonally coherent middleground can be mapped onto the surmodalisation
of being by knowing.
Figure 4: semiotic square of tonal assimilation and "know-how to-be"
The opening of Beethoven's Op. 59 no. 3 string quartet, with its slightly
bewildering succession of diminished and dominant sevenths is a good example of the
sort of passage that one might interpret in terms of "not-know-how-to-be". However, part
of the point of this modality here is that it is basically "know-how-to-be" deferred - the
piece soon settles into an unambiguous C major.
Like the Beethoven, the Nielsen extract in Example 4 involves a shift from music
that is hard to rationalize tonally to the affirmation of a definite tonic ("not-know-how-to-
be" to "know-how-to-be"). In the rest of this paper I explore this shift from the point of
view of Greimas's discussion of human disposition in narratives - clearly of potential
relevance to a musical characterization of the four temperaments. Having concentrated on
a semiotics of action - describing states of affairs in terms of modalities - the rest of my
discussion draws on Greimas's book "The semiotics of passions" (co-authored with
Jacques Fontanille) - a radical rethinking of his earlier ideas that is too often ignored (Greimas and Fontanille 1993).
Greimas and Fontanille's model of how disposition is manifested in discourse is
best introduced by way of example. Figure 5 shows how they might analyse a subject
who is indecisive.
Figure 5: an indecisive disposition
The semionarrative level on the diagram is what I have already been discussing in
terms of modalities - in this case an indecisive subject is caught between wanting and
not-wanting in relation to a given object. Greimas and Fontanille's discussion of the deep
level posits a complex and unstable conception of how meaning is generated. They also
suggest that what they call the "becoming" of a given discourse - the passage from one
state to another - can be demarcated or into phases of 'acceleration or deceleration, of
origins and ends, of openings and closings, of suspensions or delays' (: 11). The idea is
that passions and disposition are not a surface addition to a semiotics of action but
originate deep in Greimas's generative course in these modulations of becoming.
On a theoretical level, Figure 5 suggests that both modalities (on the semionarrative
level) and the temporal unfolding of the surface are preFigured at the deep level - the
hesitation at the surface of the discourse is, for example, indicative of a "protractive"
modulation of becoming.
The main practical suggestion of Figure 5, on the other hand, is that disposition can be
understood as a consequence of different configurations of modalities and modulations.
These are brought together at the surface level in an act of what Greimas and Fontanille
call convocation. Fluctuations in the temporal unfolding of music are perhaps even more
explicit in musical than in literary discourses, so this last idea seems to have the most
immediate analytical application.
If we look at the opening of Beethoven's Op. 59 no. 3 again, the "not-know-how-
to-be" of tonal uncertainty is largely combined with the "not-can" of pianissimo. The
temporal flow of the introduction is slow and hesitant with frequent rests, suggesting that
these modalities are convoked by a modulation that has a tendency to suspend musical
becoming. By contrast, the resolution into C major at the end of the page ("know-how-to-
be") is forte - projecting the modality of "can". The music is also now faster (allegro
vivace) and more continuous (particularly the repeated quavers in the bass) so
modulations of becoming could be said to be "accelerating" and "cursive". Although this
is only a complicated way of saying that the music becomes more confident as it becomes
more tonally certain, I hope to show that the complication is worthwhile.
Looking back at the Nielsen in Example 4, the point at which the foreground is
least assimilated into a coherent middleground is at bar 208, as the music swings between
E? and E ("not-know-how-to-be"). This is accompanied by a triple forte tutti, projecting
the modality of "can". A slight broadening of harmonic rhythm continuous rather than
sporadic triplet quavers and sustained wind chords result in a modulation of becoming
that is slightly slowing and also more cursive.
Greimas and Fontanille suggest that dispositions become 'set and frozen by
usage' (1993: 43) and that such stereotypical configurations (or 'semiotic styles' ) form part of
a culturally determined 'connotative passional taxonomy.' The slowing and strengthening
at 208 is a common musical configuration that again might be characterized as
confidence or even elation.
A familiar example is the poco ritardando that leads into the coda at the end of
the last movement of Brahms 4 (bars 248 ff.). Here it emphasizes and celebrates the powerful tonic
oriented trajectory of the ground bass theme and its ability to assimilate its own
What is interesting about the Nielsen is that the mobilization of this "confident"
semiotic style accompanies the "not-know-how-to-be" of tonal uncertainty. This
combination is brought in to relief from bar 216 when the "know-how-to-be" of
resolution in C minor is accompanied by a rapid reduction in the "can" of dynamics and
instrumental forces and a near-suspension of musical becoming as the music grinds to a
halt on the dominant of this key. This association of "not-know-how-to-be" with
confidence and "know-how-to-be" with collapse is almost a reversal of the Beethoven
quartet example, and one could even interpret this confidence as reckless.
Figure 6: Greimas and Fontanille's 'pathemic trajectory' (see 1993: 102 & 107-8)
The modal arrangements that Greimas and Fontanille call dispositions, however,
are only the first stage of a hypothetical generative course by means of which passions
are generated in discourse. As shown in Figure 6, a disposition must first be sensitized:
'the operation by which a culture interprets a portion of its modal arrangements that can
be considered deductively as being passional meaning effects' (1993: 95). One of the
main tools in this deductive process is an exploration of possible gaps between what a
subject is doing (their thematic role) and how they are feeling (their pathemic role). An
extreme illustration is the comparison between a subject who has just voluntarily
completed an assault course, and one who is waiting for a train but is anxious to the point
of mental collapse. Both might be described within a discourse as drawing ragged breaths
and sweating profusely, but only in the second case is there a gap between their situation
and their behaviour.
In terms of my analysis of the passage from bar 208 of Nielsen's choleric
temperament, I have identified a modal configuration or disposition that might be
characterized as confidence and I have suggested that, as a moment of tonal instability,
this confidence may be unwarranted - there is, in other words a gap between thematic
and pathemic roles.
The final two stages of the so called "pathemic trajectory" in Figure 6 are,
however, more problematic for musical analysis. Emotions are the described (or
observable) behavior of a subject within a discourse and moralization is the judgment
made by an observer who intimates that the behaviour transgresses certain cultural norms.
In a literary narrative this sort of judgment might be discernible in the pejorative
language of a narrator, or from the reactions of another subject within the narrative, but in
either case Greimas suggests, 'the factor that seems to bring on the judgment itself is
always of the order of "too much" or "too little"' (1993: 104). Many musical
commentaries informally suggest as much, particularly, in fact, in the Anglo-American
community of Nielsen scholars, where a piece is often said to have modulated too far
flatwards, become too active or stagnant, or whatever. From this point of view, the
choleric aspect of the musical subject in Example 4 might be manifested in the slight
recklessness of "too much" confidence relative to the degree of tonal assimilation or
In Nielsen 2 foreground tonal coherence is privileged - tonally ambiguous
passages are, as Robert Hatten might put it, marked. Like many of his generation
Nielsen's expressive engagement with tonality would later push towards another position
on the semiotic square shown in Figure 4 - "not-know how-to-be". As tonal coherence
becomes less the default setting, the breakdown of tonal hierarchies is assimilated. The
mild recklessness of Example 4, and wild abandon of certain other passages in this
symphony are justified by the programmatic framework. The question of how this sort of
writing becomes an integral part of Nielsen's style would be the topic of another
Semiotic descriptions of music are ultimately only as interesting as the, (often
traditional) insights upon which they are based. Whilst the level of formalization
attempted in this paper may well be a step too far for everyday purposes, I believe that
this sort of approach nevertheless offers new and interesting perspectives on musical
If my analyses have only resulted in somewhat tentative suggestions about how
and what the music signifies, that is at least partly because of the nature of musical
meaning. As Raymond Monelle has written '[its] problem is its very unproblematic
quality. ... musical theorists instead of accepting graciously the infinite plurivalence and
significative flow of music, have tried to arrest it, like language, at points of presence and
essentiality' (Monelle 1996: 51). Greimas suggested, as part of his mediation between the
abstract level of semiotic squares and the concrete surface of discourse, that it is
necessary to posit 'an intermediate semiotic level, [on which stories] receive an
anthropomorphic, but not figurative, representation' (Greimas 1987: 70). It is on such a
level that the foregoing analyses operate, exploring not so much what the music is about,
but how it can be understood as human.
© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst