Saturday, October 31, 2009

A first narrative reading (after Edward T. Cone)

This is in part a new reading, in part a postscript to the previous entry (on the unison ^5).

Using Cone's device of the "promissory note,” I ask how the kind of musical plotting he describes for the Ab-major Moment musical can be applied to D779n13. As the "note," I choose the downbeat of measure 3: its distinctive dissonance is as close as we will come to a marked pitch event in the first strain. With the leap upward in measure 3, one might have expected a brighter sonority, such as a triadic subdominant, yet the C# unequivocally signals a B-minor 6/3–it is the leap upward, the "brightness" that is disappointed by the incessant string of suspensions. Without the suspension, the B-minor chord might have been neutral: as the first two items in the graphic below show, the voice leading from this ii6 might carry F# up or down equally well. Ironically, IV would be less successful, as rising from F# threatens parallel fifths in the lower voices (third item in the graphic).
The F#, then, is (relatively) stable at the outset as a chord member of ii6 and as upper member of a tenth with the bass (see the beginning of the next graphic, which charts the narrative across the time line of the piece); it is also in an isolated, higher register, yet its "brightness" is undermined by the inner-voice suspension figure. The F# maintains its position, but at the end of the first phrase it appears to give in by mimicking the suspensions with a soft, 6-5, accented neighbor figure.
In the second phrase, this pattern is repeated but now the neighbor figure sounds like a proper 9-8 suspension, paired as it is with a true 4-3 suspension in the alto. But suddenly--out of nowhere--our initial expectation is fulfilled, albeit with the rough voice leading of the waltz ninth, as an F# passing tone rises to G# in the cadence. (On the "waltz ninth," see Neumeyer 1987, 292-293.)
This might have been the end of it, but Schubert writes the second strain as an ingeniously intensified variation of the progress of the first. The relation of F# to E is sharpened (literally) by converting F# to the seventh of a dominant (C# major: V) and E to its resolution on E# (as ^3 of C# major). This again would appear to be the end of it–F# can only descend–except that the memory of rising is preserved in the repetitions of the cadence figure from the first strain (now a major third higher). The pitch C#6 reached in these cadences is the excuse for a remarkable twist prepared in the mysterious measures 29-30, whose G-natural will fall to F#5 as C#6 leaps abruptly up another fourth to F#6. Even more remarkably, two bars later the upper register is abandoned again, an event we might interpret either as a retreat or as a satisfied return to place (since the cadence's waltz ninth is retained). In either case, it is obviously a denouement.
A thematic statement (summary) for this "promissory note" account is most readily tied to character and progress of the narrative. (On theme and thesis and their connection to the proto-backgrounds, see the MTS article and the three web publications listed under “References.”)
Scale degree ^6 is unstable because it is not a member of the tonic triad, but it is ambivalent in directionality. Although at first pulled down by the weight of suspension figures in the alto voice, ^6 takes advantage of the cliché of the waltz ninth to rise in the cadence of the first strain. This sequence of events is repeated, in more intense form, in the second strain, but a drop in register at the end suggests a reconciliation or 'synthesis' of the scale degree's rising and falling tendencies.
This rather wordy version, however, is little more than a character-based summary of the story. We might distill it down to something like "The ambivalent directionality of scale degree ^6 is expressed at several levels." (On this ambivalence, see Day-O-Connell.) If the sense of narrative–and most of the sense of anthropomorphic character–is lost in this bland description, that is all to the good. For any reading that suggests or imposes narrative, the thesis might be the following: we are asked to believe that the parallel between the linear chronology required for reading a story and listening to a piece of music means that story-like narratives can be productively imposed on musical compositions (another way to phrase it: we are asked to believe that the story/music parallel is a strong one that permits the creative hermeneutics of narrative-building).
Cone, Edward T. "Schubert's Promissory Note." Nineteenth Century Music 5/3 (1982): 233-241.
Neumeyer, David. "The Ascending Urlinie." Journal of Music Theory 31/2 (1987): 275-303.
Day-O'Connell, Jeremy. "The Rise of ^6 in the Nineteenth Century." Music Theory Spectrum 24/1 (2002): 35-67.
Neumeyer, David. Proto-backgrounds. On Proto-backgrounds: Material gathered from my UT website ( . . .) and from the blog “Hearing Schubert D779n13” (on Google’s blogspot): PDF essay on Texas Scholar Works [link updated 10 June 2016].

Neumeyer, David. Theme and thesis (Rebecca). See entry above.
Neumeyer, David. Theme and thesis (Hadas, The Genre Clerk). See entry above.