Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Proto-backgrounds (comparison and evaluation)

Over the past month, and one at a time, I have presented readings based on the nine proto-backgrounds. (Refer again to the introductory post; clicking on the label "proto-background" in the sidebar will bring up all the entries in a single window.) In many of the individual entries, comments offer preliminary assessments. This post compares all the readings, which seem to form two (non-exclusive) groups: (1) teleological (or end-oriented), (2) focused on one or both of the principal right-hand melody notes and yielding N or LINE-derived backgrounds.

^1-^1, ^1-^8. Of the first version, the unison ^1, I wrote that "Given the alto's strong focus on ^3 and the soprano's equally dogged emphasis on ^5, a reading generated from ^1 might seem counter-intuitive, but it [effectively conveys] the teleology in the 8-bar antecedent." The unison and octave (^1-^8) readings are very closely related, the main difference being the level to which the octave A4-A5 in bar 9 is assigned (whether proto-background or "background"). My assessment was that I "prefer [the octave] version, if only because it takes the teleological bias (which will be a factor in any analysis of this waltz involving ^1) and pushes it to the max, making for a more consistent interpretation overall." Both readings do a good job of aligning formal design and pitch elements at comparable levels.

^3-^8, ^1-^5. The reading from ^3-^8 takes this further, as "the prominent sixth of the closing cadence [that it represents] is unavoidable; . . . the most sharply teleological of the nine, [this hearing of the waltz requires that] everything must be read 'backwards' from the voicing of the final right-hand chord." By contrast, the end-orientation of the ^1-^5 hearing is limited to phrase level, where ^5 shows up immediately but ^1 only arrives at the end.

^3-^3, ^1-^3, and ^5-^5. Like the unison and octave readings, the unison ^3 and ^1-^3 are closely related: "unison ^3 focuses attention on the alto voice but differs from ^1-^3 in delegating its repeated linear path to later levels." Thus the third level ("first middleground") of the unison reading highlights INV transformations, but the same level in the ^1-^3 analysis features layered lines. At the same time, ^3-^3 and ^5-^5 are related in that each forces intense focus on one of the two right-hand melodic notes throughout. Both align very cleanly with the large units of the formal design, but the ^5-^5 hearing is more dramatic in the chromatic shift of its primary tone (rather than a secondary voice) for the C# major section and therefore offers a very direct expression of the most distinctive feature of this waltz.

^3-^5, ^5-^8. This is the odd couple, in that I characterized the former as the most obvious, one might say "natural," hearing, but the latter as a misreading.

As to which of the nine readings is the "correct" one -- or even which of them I favor -- I will first refer the reader to the MTS article's discussion of Lewin's assessment of four Schenkerian readings of a Schumann song and his ultimate choice among them. Like Lewin, I will say that all of the nine analyses of D779n13 are possible in the sense that they are coherent on their own terms and I can -- sometimes with a little effort -- hear the waltz as each interprets it. Finally, though, I would choose ^3-^5: the strongly teleological readings seem out of sync with a waltz whose sections move unpredictably. The immediacy of the suspension chain does drive forward at phrase-level, but the C# major section even breaks that up (note that there is only one suspension in each unit, not a chain). Similarly, the analyses that isolate either ^3 or ^5 (or ignore them, as in the unison ^1 and octave) are much harder to hear than the one that combines ^3 and ^5 (soprano and alto, male and female dancers).


"Any background analysis does crucial work in specifying just what some metastable hearing of the piece is" (Lewin, 167). Analysis using the proto-backgrounds as initial structures for generative hierarchies is highly dependent on the choice of the initial or highest-level figure. Such figures are what Lewin calls "metastable": not universals but acting pragmatically as if they were for the sake of the work of analysis or interpretation (see discussion in my MTS article). As I have noted in earlier posts and in web essays, they are, in fact, identical in function to the themes that a reader engenders to gather and guide reading and interpretation of a poem, story, play, or other text. For examples of themes in the analysis of literary works, see the sections Rebecca, Genre Clerk, and Blac Danse in my PDF essay Proto-backgrounds in Traditional Tonal Music: link.

Neumeyer, David. 2009. "Thematic Reading, Proto-backgrounds, and Transformations." Music Theory Spectrum 31/2: 284-324.
Lewin, David. Studies in Music with Text. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.