Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Composing Declamation: Notated Meter Changes in Brahms's Lieder

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

Composing Declamation: Notated Meter Changes in Brahms's Lieder

Article excerpt

[1] Over the past thirty years, Brahms's manipulation of musical meter has been a key topic in discussions of rhythm and meter. Scholars such as David Lewin (1981), Richard Cohn (2001), Ryan McClelland (2006, 2010), Scott Murphy (2007, 2009), and Samuel Ng (2005, 2006) have explored the relationship between Brahms's metric practices and his treatment of harmony, form, and other musical processes, focusing on his instrumental music. In more recent years, a number of scholars-including Deborah Rohr (1997), Harald Krebs (n.d.), Heather Platt (2012, n.d.), and Yonatan Malin (2010, 2012)-have turned their attention to metric manipulation in Brahms's vocal music, considering how his inventive handling of rhythm and meter relates to text expression and declamation.(1) These works have mostly focused on metric manipulation within passages that remain in the same notated meter. However, the actual changes of meter in Brahms's songs are no less common-41 of his 194 songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment involve notated meter changes, hereafter referred to as NMCs.(2) Nor are they any less central to his musical language. As with his experiments with grouping and displacement dissonance, Brahms's fascination with NMCs is a sign of his sophisticated approach to the shaping of musical time and pulsation.(3) Brahms's NMCs, in other words, are not merely cosmetic details; rather, as we will see, they often have far-reaching expressive implications.

[2] In this article, I provide an overview of three types of NMC in Brahms's solo songs. The first type involves a brief appearance of a new meter, the second involves different meters for different sections corresponding to different affects, and the third involves a quick and regular alternation between triple and duple or quadruple meters. (The three types of NMC are not mutually exclusive; a number of songs demonstrate more than one type.)(4) The NMCs in Brahms's songs alter the ordering of strong and weak musical beats, create hypermetric ambiguity, and at the same time enable Brahms to vary the pace of poetic declamation for expressive purposes. In all of these cases, NMCs generate a different sense of motion and emotion.

[3] In what follows, I address each type of NMC in turn, starting with general comments and then exploring a specific case study. These case studies include "Während des Regens," op. 58, no. 2 for Type 1; "Mein Herz ist schwer," op. 94, no. 3 for Type 2; and "Das Mädchen," op. 95, no. 1 for Type 3 (although this song also involves Type 2 and passages that resemble Type 1 ).(5) At the end of each case study I provide samples of two or three recordings to allow for comparison of performers' different interpretations of NMCs. The visual effect of a new meter seems to have a particularly strong impact on performers' interpretations. As David Epstein points out, in passages with displacement dissonances it is the performers who need to "conceptualize" and "struggle" with the contradictory notational and phenomenal accents (1990, 204). A different form of struggle emerges when performing passages with NMCs-not only because of the visual dissonance of the meter changes on the score, but also because of the indirect metric dissonances generated at the beginning of the new notated meters.(6) The performer and listener inwardly continue the previous notated metric pulsation as the new one begins, so that "there arises a brief but clearly perceptible conflict between the mentally retained first [metric] layer and the actually sounding second [metric] layer" (Krebs 1999, 45). In the case of NMCs, the second metric layer is not just a "sounding" one, but also a manifestly visual one. By visually as well as aurally shifting the metric organization of a song, NMCs not only generate new declamatory patterns; they also direct performers to certain moments of musical accentuation and punctuation that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. …

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