Friday, November 13, 2009

C# major as marked term

Judy Lochhead makes this point in a critique of Susan McClary's (traditionalist) emphasis on tonal direction and structure:

"in listening recently to a [French claveçin suite], I was struck by how the ornamental filigree emerged as the structure of the pieces. I was not hearing the 'improvised surface' as the icing on the tonally coherent cake. Rather, the animated surface was the source of playful design that was anchored by cadential progressions serving as temporal markers" (152-3; her emphasis).
Lochhead has taken a familiar opposition, structure/surface, and “flipped” it, that is, given attention not to what we assume to be the initial term (surface) but rather to its opposing term (surface), the idea being to demonstrate and critique by example the power relations of convention and otherness.

A similar notion of "inversion" informs the first of two readings today: we flip the hierarchies of harmony (and form) in D779n13 to give pride of place to the C# major passage, whose "surprise" and "strangeness," after all, are the truly expressive, "Romantic" moment in this piece.

A less radical way to make the same point would be in terms of "tonal pairing," a concept that has proven fruitful for interpretation of music in the later nineteenth century. In our case, A and C# would be assigned equal status in a double-tonic complex (Krebs, 17), and a resulting graphic might look (in its background) like the one below.

In this instance, we are to understand the tonalities of A and C# as juxtaposed and as equally significant to our experience of the piece. At the outset, A major takes the conventional position of hegemonic tonic, but C# major abruptly undercuts that function, reducing A major to "frame" and A5 (^8) to neighbor note. When A major returns (or, perhaps better said, "gradually reintroduces itself"), the status of C# major is changed, but the "framing" quality of A major is not entirely erased, an impression that the repetition of the second strain only enhances.

Is it possible for B in an AABABA design, as here, to acquire an enhanced status? Not if it functions as a traditional contrasting middle, with unstable tonality, chromaticism, sequences, and fragmentation. But the stability of the C# major area, and the abruptness with which the key is reached and left, suggest an opposition rather than a functional assimilation of the kind we would understand from a conventional focus on the dominant.

Lochhead, Judy. Review of Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom. Music Theory Spectrum 24/1 (2002): 150-53.

Krebs, Harald. "Some Early Examples of Tonal Pairing: Schubert's 'Meeres Stille' and 'Der Wanderer'." In William Kinderman and Harald Krebs, eds., The Second Practice Of Nineteenth-Century Tonality, 17-33. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.