Sonata Fragments: Romantic Narrative in Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms

Sonata Fragments: Romantic Narrative in Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms

Sonata Fragments: Romantic Narrative in Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms

Sonata Fragments: Romantic Narrative in Chopin, Schumann, and Brahms

Synopsis

In Sonata Fragments, Andrew Davis argues that the Romantic sonata is firmly rooted, both formally and expressively, in its Classical forebears, using Classical conventions in order to convey a broad constellation of Romantic aesthetic values. This claim runs contrary to conventional theories of the Romantic sonata that place this nineteenth-century musical form squarely outside inherited Classical sonata procedures. Building on Sonata Theory, Davis examines moments of fracture and fragmentation that disrupt the cohesive and linear temporality in piano sonatas by Chopin, Brahms, and Schumann. These disruptions in the sonata form are a narrative technique that signify temporal shifts during which we move from the outer action to the inner thoughts of a musical agent, or we move from the story as it unfolds to a flashback or flash-forward. Through an interpretation of Romantic sonatas as temporally multi-dimensional works in which portions of the music in any given piece can lie inside or outside of what Sonata Theory would define as the sonata-space proper, Davis reads into these ruptures a narrative of expressive features that mark these sonatas as uniquely Romantic.

Excerpt

There is a moment in the transition of the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Sonata in B minor, op. 58 that raises difficult questions. As shown in example 0.1, the movement opens with what seems to be a structurally unproblematic, if weighty, eight-bar primary theme (P) that ends by tonicizing its own dominant (F minor) in m. 8. the transition (TR) then begins immediately (m. 9), opening with a restatement of the P idea on the subdominant E minor and continuing in a normative fashion. the rhetoric suggests tonal and motivic dissolution—as would be expected in a sonata transition—before we eventually reach a dominant pedal in the bass in m. 14. the pedal is on an Fdominant of the original B minor, which appears to signal that this transition is of the nonmodulating variety—one that never leaves the tonic key. None of this is necessarily unusual.

The first sign that this transition may not continue in the most normative fashion—the first sign of trouble, perhaps—appears in m. 17, when the F pedal seems to be abandoned in favor of a rather surprising half-step move downward in the bass, to F, a pitch staged as the dominant of B major. This emergent B major veers immediately, in the very next bar, toward its own relative minor, ultimately aiming at a dominant-seventh chord in that key (g:V7) at the end of m. 18 and, one would assume, a G-minor local tonic triad on the downbeat of m. 19. Thus, obviously, mm. 17–18 introduce a chromatic tonal shift into the tr. But even this move is not necessarily unusual, and there may well be no reason at all for surprise: perhaps this is a sonata transition that appears to be openly rethinking or reconsidering its original (nonmodulating?) tonal course; or, more broadly, perhaps this tr is exceptionally developmental and chromatic—not surprising, after all, in a piece that employs a typically mid-nineteenth-century chromatic harmonic language.

Whatever one chooses to make of the events in mm. 17–18, the movement’s rhetoric becomes even more strained and the questions more numerous at the downbeat of m. 19. Here, the dominant seventh from m. 18 b. 4, instead of resolving as expected onto a G-minor triad, crashes onto a jarring, sforzando, fully diminished-seventh chord of the E-G-B-C variety, which in turn gives way to material that initially seems rhythmically fragmentary and then, shortly afterward, appears to become tonally disoriented. Measures 20–21 point toward but never successfully stabilize E (is this a “tonic” that was foreshadowed by the earlier . . .

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