The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory

By Magarotto, Matteo | Notes, December 2015 | Go to article overview

The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory


Magarotto, Matteo, Notes


The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory. Edited by Danuta Mirka. (Oxford Handbooks.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. [xv, 683 p. ISBN 9780199841578. $150.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliographic references, indexes, companion Web site: www.oup.com/us /ohtt.

With this edited collection, focusing on expression in eighteenth-century music, the term "topic theory" appears in a book title for the first time, but the field already boasts a fairly long tradition originating with Leonard Ratner's Classic Music: Ex - pression, Form, and Style (New York: Schirmer Books, 1980). In that study, Ratner defined topics as "subjects for musical discourse," figures deriving from genres and styles of eighteenth-century music-such as dances, marches, or the learned style-that composers borrowed and used in their works. For Ratner, topics were valuable because they would allow modern listeners to perceive the affective connotations of the source styles and thus access classic music's expressive eloquence on historicist bases. Following in his footsteps, Wye Allanbrook applied the concept to Mozart's comic operas, and KofiAgawu combined the study of topics and Schenkerian principles in order to highlight the integration of expression and structure in the chamber music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Agawu's approach marked the incorporation of topic theory into the field of music semiotics, further explored by Robert Hatten and Raymond Monelle (for a summary of these developments, see Nicholas McKay, "On Topics Today," Zeitschriftder Gesellschaftfür Musiktheorie 4, nos. 1-2 [2007]: 159-83). As Danuta Mirka observes in her introduction to the present volume, however, topic theory "has been wrought with discrepancies that have prevented it from displaying its full potential" (p. 43). Furthermore, both the absence of "topic" as a musical concept in eighteenth-century culture and Monelle's dismissal of contemporaneous sources have "undermined the credentials of topic theory in the age of authenticity" (p. 2).

Addressing such concerns, the Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory fulfills its promise of presenting a "foundational publication in topic theory" (dust jacket) of large and multidisciplinary scope, which aims to resolve the discrepancies that Mirka mentions and to establish the historical origins of stylistic borrowing (introduction and section I), investigate topics' stylistic sources (section II), explore the relationship of topics with musical structure and their impact on analysis and interpretation (section III), and study their import for historically informed performance and their effect on listeners (sections IV and V). Contributors to the volume include topic-theory veterans Agawu, Hatten, and Elaine Sisman; other preeminent musicologists and music theorists such as Mary Hunter, Dean Sutcliffe, and William Caplin; and several earlycareer scholars, all of whom excel in thoroughness of approach and clarity of exposition. The twenty-five chapters are independent, each accompanied with its own bibliographic references, but chapters are also interconnected with useful crossreferences, an indication of careful editing (the only glitch being a handful of citations in the body that lack corresponding bibliographic entries). The Handbook's variety of perspectives and transparent organization will facilitate access for different types of readers, from music theorists and musicologists to performers, teachers, and graduate students. In line with the tradition of the field, the repertory of focus consists of the chamber and orchestral music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, with an emphasis on Mozart. While the volume also contains discussions of excerpts by other composers, such as Domenico Scarlatti, J. S. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, Gluck, Dittersdorf, Kozeluch, Pleyel, and Clementi (with Chopin, Robert Schumann, and Bruckner in the last chapter), a more extended coverage of diverse repertories would have increased the value of this worthy publication. …

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