Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of Peter H. Smith, Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Review of Peter H. Smith, Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet

Article excerpt

[1] Despite its being published as part of a series devoted to musical meaning and interpretation, Peter Smith's Expressive Forms in Brahms's Instrumental Music: Structure and Meaning in His Werther Quartet is a stone that aims to kill many birds. Smith the historian/critic clarifies the convoluted compositional history of the quartet, carefully traces aspects of the piece's conception to Brahms's life events, and critically evaluates the position of the piece within the "C-minor tradition" of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Chapters 1 and 7). Smith the Schenkerian offers a penetrating interrogation of controversial aspects of Schenker's ideas on musical form (Chapters 2 and 4), and instantiates the advantage of integrating the Schenkerian perspective with other theoretical tools when investigating formal complexity in common-practice tonality (Chapters 3 and 5). Finally, Smith the interpreter intelligibly illuminates Brahms's intimate musical expression in a highly personal and original chamber work, providing a hermeneutical route to the understanding of its expressive meaning and intertextual resonances (Chapters 6 and 7).

[2] Notwithstanding the book's multifaceted orientation and hence a potentially wide readership, Smith identifies his target audience in Chapter 1: "My intention is to engage the quartet as a case study for how it might be possible to steer a middle course between the old music theory, which tends to be purely analytical and formalist, and the new musicology, which often denies itself the insights of careful musical analysis in the pursuit of critical interpretation. Now that the theory community has developed and disseminated sophisticated analytical tools, the time is ripe to explore how our [i.e., music theorists'] work can contribute still further to insight into expressive content."(4)

[3] Smith's basic goal is twofold. On the one hand, he defends the value of the type of structural analysis that has been seriously questioned and criticized by the new musicologists since the early eighties. Countering that new musicology often lacks analytical insights, Smith strives to demonstrate in his expressive interpretation of the quartet how "theory and analysis are necessary tools [that] have the capacity to bring us closer to the individuality of an art work and thus to its particular expressive profile."(4) On the other hand, and perhaps more importantly, Smith hopes to challenge the structuralists and formalists of the "theory community" to engage in expressive interpretation of music as a response to the criticisms of the new musicologists. As Smith believes that expression is inherent in musical structure, analyses that aim to uncover structural properties should also shed light on musical expression and meaning. Structural analysis, therefore, should not be an end in itself, but must ultimately serve as a means to achieve deeper understanding of the expressivity of music. While theory may interact with biographical, historical, critical, and literary domains in many ways to achieve that end, Smith's program hinges upon his idea of a formalist approach to music theory-that the interpretation of musical meaning and expression is grounded on the materials of and relationships within the music.

[4] To be sure, the marriage of structural analysis and expressive interpretation is hardly a new pursuit; Smith acknowledges the influence of Edward T. Cone, Kofi Agawu, and Robert Hatten when formulating his own ideas. The reception of the works of his predecessors underlines one particularly delicate aspect of the enterprise with which Smith is also confronted: attempts to correlate structure and meaning are often susceptible to criticism of analytical superficiality and/or interpretive rigidity.(1) Agawu's insight into the problematic balance between structural and expressive components in a hermeneutic reading-in this case of a Beethoven sonata-is instructive:

... those who desire greater detail concerning structural matters, who wish to place chromatic elements in a broader context of voice leading patterns, may well turn to other analyses (such as Schenker's) for the fuller picture . …

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