Leonard Ratner, Classic Music (1980), ch. 2 Topics are ‘subjects of musical discourse’ Topics are conventional (pre-existing) types of material that composers drew on Topics are often music about music, drawn from other types of piece (recitative, aria, prelude, fantasia, fugue, cadenza, chorale, etc) Topics often possess character (are ‘affective zones’) and carry associations
Mozart, Sonata in F, K. 332 (ca 1781) Let’s play name that topic... Label the topics, according to Ratner, on the score provided. If you get stuck, refer to the table of Ratner’s topics circulated as a handout.
Basic Issues in labelling topics More than one topic at once (e.g. bb. 1-4) What is a topic and what is just a compositional technique or convention (e.g. bb. 49-52) Topical labels that don’t seem specific enough for the material (e.g. bb. 42-44) Uncertainty of topic (e.g. bb. 56-65) Subjectivity of identification (e.g. bb. 71-75)
Topics and Form Thinking of sonata form in standard terms as a harmonic journey, articulated with themes of more or less contrasting character, do topics work with, or against, the exposition of this sonata? Hint: consider which topics are used for each of the main areas: tonic area; transition to dominant; dominant area; closing (dominant key) phase of the exposition.
Topics, Associations and Meaning What is Mozart getting at in this piece? In changing the topic so frequently in the exposition, what ideas, scenes, images might be suggested to our imagination?
Inspiration (‘Begeisterung’) ‘All artists... Sometimes experience an extraordinary feeling in their soul... Ideas suddenly develop themselves with seemingly no effort, and the best of them flow forth in such abundance as if the product of some higher force. Without doubt, this is what one calls “inspiration”’. Sulzer, General Encylopaedia of the Fine Arts (1771-74), trans. Baker & Christensen 1995: 32.
Compositional Bungling Inspired or not, the implied composer of K. 332/i/exposition appears not to be able to decide on a single main theme or subject for musical discourse. Perhaps this makes the piece a musical ‘joke’, comparable to Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß, K. 522 (1787) (literally ‘Some musical fun’), a divertimento for strings and horns that appears to satirise compositional (and performance) incompetence in its (elegantly) awkward, inept and discordant elements.
Inflamed Sensibility and Imagination Bordering on Madness ‘He crammed together and jumbled up together thirty songs-- Italian, French, tragic, comic--in all sorts of different styles. Sometimes in a bass voice he went down all the way to hell, and sometimes he'd feign a falsetto and sing at the top of his voice, tearing into the high points of some songs, imitating the walk, deportment, gestures of the different singing characters, by turns furious, soft, imperious, sniggering. At one point, he's a young girl crying--portraying all her mannerisms--at another point he's a priest, he's a king, he's a tyrant--he threatens, commands, loses his temper. He's a slave. He obeys. He calms down, he laments, he complains, he laughs--never straying from the tone, rhythm, or sense of the words or the character of the song’. Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew (1763)*
Extramusical Interpretations arising from topic analysis* Possess different degrees of plausibility: what domain is being mapped onto music – something relatively close or more remote? Are the musical elements identified important and audible in the piece or randomly chosen details? Is the reading consistent with the composer’s context and beliefs? Is the kind of meaning being given to music plausible in historical terms? Let’s invent a relatively implausible interpretation of topical play in K. 332 – and then identify why it’s implausible.
Why Ratner’s Theory Matters ‘Ratner’s brilliant insight unveiled a wealth of semantic content in both vocal and instrumental music long ignored by formalist critics. Like the paint that once adorned the Parthenon, his types and styles restored the vivid colors to the bleached monuments of Viennese classicism’. Stephen Rumph, Mozart and Enlightenment Semiotics (California UP, 2012), 79.
A Context for Ratner’s Theory Not long before her death in 2010, I chatted with Wye (‘Wendy’) J. Allanbrook, one of Ratner’s PhD students. She told me that as a postgraduate student at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the music of HMB was understood as ‘absolute music’ – meaning ‘pure music’ that is a ‘moving structure’ and refers to nothing but itself. She confessed to sitting in the library, reading Edward Hanslick’s On the Musically Beautiful (1854), and thinking ‘yes!’ as the author proclaimed that rousing feelings and suggesting images and ideas is not music’s essential business, nor true to its essential nature. The ‘beautiful’ in music, Hanslick argued, was purely musical; music is autonomous, something to contemplate, ideally without emotional involvement.
Cont. Hanslick insisted that ‘the content of music is tonally moving forms’ and that compositions arise from the ‘spontaneous activity of the [composer’s] imagination’ in creating ‘musical ideas’ [quotations from chapter 3 of the treatise]. Hanslick’s views had become institutionalised in how music was taught. In this context, Ratner’s theory of topics was a paradigm shift.
Absolute Music Smuggled Back In Another Ratner pupil, Kofi Agawu, attempted to integrate topics into Schenkerian analysis, adding topical labels to his graphs of harmony and voice leading (Playing with Signs, Princeton UP, 1991). Agawu was one of several writers who used the technical vocabulary of semiotics to lend topic theory a more seemingly ‘objective’ and formalised basis. (Thus for Agawu, the musical elements in my table, above, are ‘signifiers’ while the topical label – the category – is the ‘signified’). Arguably, though, Agawu smuggled the pure music view back in to ‘topic theory’.
Hermeneutics Others have been attracted by the hermeneutic potential of topics to give pieces political/social meaning. I used topics in that way in my book Orientalism, Masquerade and Mozart’s Turkish Music, RMA/Ashgate, 2000, where I ‘read’ the alla turca topic in Mozart as a window opening out onto the history of military conflict between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires, and as baring connotations of then prevalent ideas of Ottoman masculinity, violence, and primitivism.
K. 331/i vs iii (coda) The coda of K. 331, which Mozart titled ‘alla turca’ (not ‘rondo alla turca’) was composed in 1783, 100 years after the second siege of Vienna. The form is odd – sections tacked on without apparent concern for balance or intelligibility. The coda, which hardly ‘knows’ the rest of the piece, involves ‘harsh’ percussive chords, a melody at once noisy and hollow, a few basic root-position chords. It is telling us something! Compare this with the opposite edge of the sonata – the variation theme of the first movement.
Current Research on Topics The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory (2014), ed. Danuta Mirka, will argue that a topic is music about music – that a topic is a type of music that is detached from its original context and appears in the manner of a borrowing or citation. As part of this, a range of contributors are examining which of Ratner’s topics are ‘really’ topics, rather than simply aspects of a conventionalised language. Those most altered are Sturm und Drang, Sensibility, and Fantasia.
Understanding Through Topics Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K. 310 (Paris, Summer 1778), ii. Listen. Solomon’s reading: bliss and terror refer to being with, and loosing, the mother Topical reading: pastoral