Brahms and the Scherzo: Studies in Musical Narrative

By Vaillancourt, Michael | Notes, September 2011 | Go to article overview

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.

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