Brahms and the Scherzo: Studies in Musical Narrative
Vaillancourt, Michael, Notes
EUROPE Brahms and the Scherzo: Studies in Musical Narrative. By Ryan McClelland. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2010. [xiv, 320 p. ISBN 9780754668107. $124.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.
As the twenty-first century enters its second decade, there seems little left to say about Brahms's multi-movement instrumental works. After all, the composer's orchestral, chamber, and solo piano output has been the subject of an intense analytical scrutiny that dates back over a century and a half. However, the primary focus of past criticism has been on first movements, privileging Brahms's relationship to classical sonata form. Inner movements remain comparatively neglected and Ryan McClelland's new book on Brahms's scherzos seeks to redress this imbalance. In this sense, the book complements Margaret Notley's work on Brahms's slow movements in redirecting our critical attention toward the sites of some of the composer's greatest innovations (Margaret Notley, "Late- Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music and the Cult of the Classical Adagio," 19th- Century Music 23, no. 1 [Summer 1999]: 33-61).
The principal aim of the book is twofold. First, the author provides a comprehensive analytical description of the complete repertoire of Brahms's scherzos within the context of the composer's evolving musical style. Second, he connects this analysis to an investigation of Brahms's projection of musical narrative and expressive meaning. McClelland's conception of the scherzo is broad, including a number of related movement types such as minuets, intermezzos, and waltzes, along with several hybrids more difficult to categorize. He relies on both the composer's designations and his own identification of stylistic features to define the boundaries of the repertoire. The book is organized around a combination of chronology and what McClelland terms "expressive types." The methods and techniques employed are largely those of what the author refers to at one point as "conventional musical analysis" (p. 298). He engages a level of analytical detail found in few previous books on Brahms, almost all of which are concerned with more limited repertoires. Fred Lerdahl, Ray Jackendoff, Carl Schachter, William Rothstein, and Harald Krebs are all cited as influences on the author's conception and analytic approach. McClelland displays extensive coverage of secondary literature and the book features an unusually rich array of music examples and helpful charts.
A central preoccupation of the study is the explication of "musical narratives." McClelland conceptualizes narrative as a series of events that create "expressive trajectories" characterized by affective distinctions such as conflict, struggle and transcendence. These narratives are formed through the development and transformation of the main material of a movement and it is "the relationship of the initial music to its subsequent versions [that] creates a musical narrative" (p. 6). McClelland sees rhythmic structure as a key to understanding Brahms's musical narratives, and the analysis of metric dissonance occupies a sizable proportion of the study. Although he does not neglect local rhythmic issues such as hemiola, the author is particularly interested in exploring hypermeter-levels of metric organization greater than the notated measure. He discovers hypermeter as the favored context in Brahms's scherzos for the creation of structural tension as well as a primary form-defining element.
The composer's relationship to Beetho - ven's scherzos looms as a principal compositional reference, sometimes as a source for allusion, more often as a template that Brahms composes against. McClelland strikes a splendid balance between reinforcing the much-discussed relationship between Brahms and the Viennese classics and locating examples of stylistic innovation within the music. He also reinforces the important point that theories designed to explain music from the beginning of the nineteenth century remain largely valid for Brahms. Far from representing an anachronism, they underpin the composer's immersion in music of the past and continue the concerns of many of his contemporaries. McClelland brings to bear a sophisticated analytic arsenal; his eye for detail is impressive and his connection of local detail to large-scale structural matters is particularly illuminating. One of the most rewarding aspects of the book is the description of close interaction between rhythmic and tonal parameters. His virtuoso analysis of the third movement of the Piano Quintet synthesizes several traditional critical observations-the tonal ambiguity of the opening, the persistent emphasis on the half-step between dominant and submediant and the juxtaposition of 6/8 and 2/4-thereby revealing them as part of a sophisticated strategy of intensified instability and delayed resolution.
Comprehensive coverage of a finite repertoire through exhaustive analysis constitutes at once the book's greatest strength and by definition therefore its greatest limitation. It permits detailed treatment of a large group of pieces but does not situate Brahms's scherzos within the history of the genre. His contemporaries and immediate predecessors are absent from the discussion and even the references to scherzos of Beethoven and Schubert are selective. Given the capaciousness of scherzo as a classification, McClelland's choice to leave the genre undefined provides the reader no context for evaluating Brahms's individual approach. Thus, when we are told that Brahms's early scherzos display features "quite typical of the mid-nineteenthcentury scherzo," we have no clear basis for judging the claim (p. 27). Which midcentury scherzos are typical: Chopin's? Robert Volkmann's? Joachim Raff's?
The author hints at a new approach to historical musical topics when he groups three rather disparate pieces-the scherzos from the Horn Trio, First Piano Trio and Second Piano Quartet-under the heading "The Pastoral Scherzos." Musical signification of the pastoral is present only intermittently in these movements, combined with allusion to many other topics within quite distinctive individual contexts. McClelland admits that these examples contain features "less typical of the pastoral," but assures us that enough pertinent features are present "to cue the pastoral mode" (p. 127). He refers the reader to an article by Robert Hatten that posits a new approach, characteristic of the nineteenth century, to pastoral-related topics in Schubert's G-Major Piano Sonata, D. 894. (Robert Hatten, "Schubert's Pastoral: The Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894," in Schubert the Progressive: History, Performance Practice, Analysis, ed. Brian Newbould [Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2003], 151-68). We are not informed how the pieces in question fit into a possible nineteenth-century reconfiguration of the pastoral and how they might differ from its traditional manifestations. To be convincing, such a bold reinterpretation requires more substantive evidence. Merely the assertion that the three works contain horn fifths and lengthy pedal points is not quite adequate, particularly given the simultaneous inclusion of a number of anti-generic indicators. The movements in question are so different in character that it is difficult to imagine them belonging to any single category. For instance, the second movement of the Horn Trio is predominantly suggestive of the hunt, which with its equestrian derivation represents a lineage quite distinct from the pastoral.
In both his introductory and concluding chapters, McClelland aligns his work with Peter H. Smith's recent book on Brahms's Piano Quartet, op. 60, claiming a central role for "conventional modes of analysis" in the investigation of musical meaning (Peter H. Smith, Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instru mental Music: Structure and Meaning in his Werther Quartet [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005]). However, Smith uses documentary evidence, drawn from Brahms's correspondence, to support his investigation, whereas McClelland relies solely on analytical information. McClelland claims that his approach is "fundamentally similar-only less specific" (p. 298). Yet surely an important key to unlocking musical meaning lies not only in analysis, but in those cultural signs elucidated through the specificity of language. An approach to musical meaning largely unleavened by historical and cultural concerns remains at a limiting level of abstraction. It would also seem to raise issues of accessibility to other disciplines, precluding potential for fruitful interdisciplinary engagement.
The question of musical meaning is clearly only a secondary concern of the author's, and it should not therefore deflect attention from the very real strengths of this book. McClelland provides a thorough and enormously useful consideration of Brahms's approach to a specific set of compositional problems. How, for instance, could the composer create structural tension analogous to first-movement sonata style, but within the confines of a closed form with its relative brevity and narrower range of thematic types? One of the composer's solutions was to transfer the primary focus from tonal to rhythmic elements. In describing this process, McClelland has illuminated a unique approach and provided a set of analytical tools that can be employed in Brahms's instrumental output as a whole. Another significant contribution elucidates the correspondence between generic movement types and the structural and stylistic strategies employed by the composer. This includes the most sophisticated description of Brahms's intermezzo-influenced inner movements to date, particularly their penchant for greater thematic variety than most scherzos. Perhaps most important, the book supports recent recognition of the continuing validity of generic distinctions during the mid- and late nineteenth century, by implication refuting Carl Dahl - haus's claim of generic relativism in late romanticism (Carl Dahlhaus, "Zur Proble - matik der musikalischen Gattungen im 19. Jahrhundert," in Gattungen der Musik in Einzeldarstellungen: Gedenkschrift Leo Schrade, ed. Wulf Arlt [Bern: Francke, 1973], 840- 95). McClelland's book is unquestionably an essential milestone in Brahms studies that will surely be lasting and much cited.
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Publication information: Article title: Brahms and the Scherzo: Studies in Musical Narrative. Contributors: Vaillancourt, Michael - Author. Journal title: Notes. Volume: 68. Issue: 1 Publication date: September 2011. Page number: 84+. © 2009 Music Library Association, Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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