Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Thinking (and Singing) in Threes: Triple Hypermeter and the Songs of Fanny Hensel

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Thinking (and Singing) in Threes: Triple Hypermeter and the Songs of Fanny Hensel

Article excerpt

[1] In the past quarter century, hypermeter has become a central topic of music-theoretical inquiry. As the discipline has moved beyond its fascination-some might even say its preoccupation-with elements of pitch, the study of meter above the level of the measure has blossomed into a veritable discipline of its own. Thanks to the pioneering work of scholars such as Edward T. Cone, Carl Schachter, Jonathan Kramer, Harald Krebs, William Rothstein, and Fred Lerdahl and Ray Jackendoff, music analysts now possess an array of sophisticated tools to explain how hypermeter contributes to musical meaning and expression (Cone 1968, Schachter 1980, Schachter 1987, Lerdahl and Jackendoff 1983, Kramer 1988, Rothstein 1989, and Krebs 1999). More recent scholarship on hypermeter has expanded upon this work and dealt with the dramatization of hypermetric conflict (Cohn 1992a), mathematical models of metric and hypermetric dissonance (Cohn 1992b), analogies between metric spaces and tonal spaces (Cohn 2001 and Murphy 2007), and hypermetric transitions (Temperley 2008), among other topics.

[2] Most studies of hypermeter have dealt with instrumental music. Hypermeter in vocal music, however, has received far less critical attention. In part, this may be because music with text is regarded as less innovative, and hence less analytically interesting, from a hypermetric point of view. Poetry, after all, would seem to impose its own normalizing structure on works of music, thus potentially minimizing any oddities in phrase rhythm. Composers may also feel that too much hypermetric conflict distracts listeners from the meaning of the text.(1) Yet precisely because words influence compositional decisions about the flow of a work's larger metric units, the interaction of hypermeter and text is especially worthy of study. Words provide not just a constraint but also a creative impetus. They inspire composers to play with hypermeter, to bend musical time in response to the words they set. The presence of a text makes it possible to discern why a composer might have chosen one type of hypermeter over another. And it raises important questions about the hermeneutics of hypermeter: What is the expressive effect of hypermetric irregularity? Are certain hypermetric devices related to certain affects-hypermetric irregularity with instability and unpredictability, hypermetric regularity with stability and order? How, in short, does hypermeter contribute to musico-poetic meaning?

[3] Recently, a handful of theorists have begun to consider these and related questions. Foremost among them is Harald Krebs, who has written about the expressive effect of rhythmic, metric, and hypermetric conflict in the Lieder of Josephine Lang and Robert Schumann and shown that hypermeter is an important vehicle of musical expression (1999, 2005, 2009).(2) Yonatan Malin has also explored the interaction of text, rhythm, and meter, focusing on metric displacement dissonance (2006) and "metaphors of energy" (2008) in German Lieder spanning from Schubert to Schoenberg. His recently published book, Songs in Motion: Rhythm and Meter in the German Lied (2010), extends this research, combining the insights of music theory and metric theory and applying them in perceptive readings of songs by Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn), Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf.(3)

[4] Building upon Krebs's and Malin's work, this article explores a topic not explicitly addressed in the published literature on hypermeter-the expressive meaning of triple hypermeter in music with text. How, I ask, does triple hypermeter relate to poetic form and content? What aspects of a poem's structure might prompt a composer to set a poem in triple as opposed to duple hypermeter? How and why might a composer deviate from a poem's natural poetic rhythm to create unorthodox three-bar, rather than two- or four-bar, hypermeasures? How does triple hypermeter happen-what musical techniques bring it into being? …

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