SchenkerGUIDE: research
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 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 chromaticism.

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 "knowing".

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 presentation, however.

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 signification.

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.

Part I Part II Part III
Example 2
Example 3
Example 4
Bibliography
Research Papers (Home)

© Copyright Thomas Pankhurst