Past Seminars: Abstracts

Season 1

Academic Year 2018-19

Peter H. Smith (University of Notre Dame), The “type-2” sonata form in the nineteenth century: a case study from Mendelssohn’s Octet’ (17 October 2018)

This lecture explores musical and theoretical issues raised by a particular type of parallel form that has been interpreted in two strikingly contradictory ways – either as a bi-rotational ‘type-2’ sonata form or as a sonata form with a reversed recapitulation. Insights drawn from Hepokoski & Darcy’s sonata theory, Caplin’s theory of formal functions, and Schenkerian concepts of tonal content argue in favour of a type-2 interpretation of nineteenth-century manifestations. A movement distinguished by its supple form/content synergies serves as a case study: the Andante from Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings in E-flat major, op. 20. Analysis of the Andante demonstrates some of the ways these theories may prove mutually reinforcing, even when they marshal different criteria and model out-of-phase relationships between, say, formal boundaries and Schenkerian tonal pillars. Throughout, the emphasis is on dynamic interactions between a type-2 movement’s generic formal characteristics and its compositional idiosyncrasies.

Leah Broad (Christ Church, Oxford), ‘Purely “incidental”? Analysing theatre music’ (7 November 2018)

Music and sound have a profound effect on the way that theatre moves and engages its audience, but we have only a partial understanding of how this achieved. Perhaps because ‘dramatic works typically receive the least recognition or respect’ in musicology, as Eric Saylor puts it, incidental music has been the focus of very little analytical attention. But this is a genre with musical, theatrical, and historical significance. As a popular medium, theatre has wielded significant influence over public attitudes towards events and ideas, and incidental scores have reached audiences of thousands, sometimes millions. But without an analytically informed approach to incidental music, we have a limited understanding of how audiences would have understood any given production.

This paper explores some of the analytical problems and possibilities posed by incidental music. I focus on a single collaboration, looking at Ture Rangström’s music for a 1926 production of August Strindberg’s Till Damaskus (III), directed by Per Lindberg. This comprises nearly an hour of music, including Preludes, Entr’actes, melodrama, and underscoring, so demonstrates many of the challenges that incidental music presents.

Richard Widdess (SOAS, London), ‘Analysis in real time: listeners’ perceptions of Indian music’ (21 November 2018)

How do listeners make sense of unfamiliar music at first hearing, without conscious awareness of its structure or cultural meaning? Further exposure normally leads to increased familiarity and acceptance, but does not depend on gaining explicit knowledge of structure. This capacity to absorb musical languages informally presumably underlies cross-cultural musical exchanges across history, including the international reach of Indian classical music since the 1960s, the rise of other ‘World Music’ genres, and the global spread of Western musical styles.

It appears that listeners are cognitively able to perceive some of the inherent structural features of unfamiliar music, at least implicitly, in real time. Martin Rohrmeier, Tudor Popescu, and myself are investigating processes of implicit learning and segmentation with the help of the sitarist Dharambir Singh. How far are listeners unfamiliar with Indian music able to distinguish the different melodic grammar of two rāgas? Can they detect the hierarchical phrase-structure of the music? In investigating these questions we aimed to avoid the bias towards Western musical genres, and the reliance on artificially generated test materials, conventional in music psychology research.

Julian Horton (University of Durham), ‘Rethinking sonata failure: structure and process in Mendelssohn’s Overture Die schöne Melusine‘ (13 February 2019)

Emily Tan (University of Oxford), ‘Objective autonomy in Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto (TrV 292, 1945)’ (27 February 2019)

In ‘The Musicology of the Future’ Lawrence Kramer wrote ‘the emergence of a postmodernist, that is to say, a critical, musicology will depend on our willingness and ability to read as inscribed within the immediacy-effects of music itself the kind of mediating structures usually positioned outside music under the rubric of context’ (Lawrence Kramer, ‘The Musicology of the Future’, repercussions, 1 (1992), 10).

It is now the future, and in this presentation I will suggest that the ‘mediating structure’ of sonata form that is usually positioned ‘inside’ the Allegro moderato of Strauss’s Oboe Concerto might rather be considered under the rubric of context. Existing methods of sonata form analysis applied to the concerto appropriate the immediately appreciable effects of sonata form – its structural ‘punctuation’ – for a discourse predicated on principles of musical unity, coherence, and autonomy. To the contrary, I will show how the presence of sonata ‘punctuation’ in the first section of the Oboe Concerto does not denote a unified, coherent, and autonomous musical form (at least not in the usual sense of these terms).

In order to bring the mediating context of sonata form analysis back into the immediacy of the Oboe Concerto and its structure, I suggest we need a different conception of sonata form. Rather than understanding the concerto’s formal idiosyncrasy from the perspective of sonata deformation, which necessitates a dialogic relationship between the idea of sonata form and the immanent musical form that is the material working-out of this idea, I propose a non-dialogical sonata form in which the material sonata is suppressed under the abstracted idea of the sonata tradition; thus, I will argue that the work espouses an ‘objective’ autonomy.

Dai Griffiths (Oxford Brookes University), ‘So-called classical virtues in a so-called popular song: does analysing Lorraine Feather, “The girl with the lazy eye” (Ages, 2010) tell us if it’s any good?’ (2 May 2019)

‘The Girl with the Lazy Eye’ is a recording of a song made up of words by Lorraine Feather (also its singer) and music by Russell Ferrante (also its pianist), and issued on Feather’s record Ages, on the independent label Jazzed Media in 2010. In this talk, I attend in turn to Ferrante’s music, Lorraine Feather’s words, and briefly the recording. Elements of so-called classical and so-called popular music co-exist in various respects. My conclusion celebrates wit as a critical category, albeit in an ambiguous context, while I at least claim to bridge taste (I happen to like this song) and value (this song is demonstrably good).


Season 2

Academic Year 2019-20

Naomi Waltham-Smith (University of Warwick), ‘A motley music: the music analyst lends an ear to democracy’ (23 October 2019)

British democracy is in crisis. Lord Keen QC has just taken the extraordinary step of having to reassure the Justices that the Prime Minister will take all necessary steps to comply with any declaration the Supreme Court makes. Legal experts, political scientists, and the Twittersphere have been exercising themselves in debating the constitutional stakes of a juncture (and hubris) unprecedented in modern times. More broadly, in recent years scholars across a wide variety of disciplines—historians, political theorists, economists, sociologists, philosophers—have offered various analyses of the resurgence of right-wing populisms, the emergence of leaders brandishing authoritarian personalities, and the collapse in the hegemony of the liberal political-economic consensus. But there is another hypothesis that merits exploration, a diagnosis that music analysts are in a privileged position to test and explain—namely, that the crises of representation we are currently witnessing may be analysed as a generalized crisis of listening.

My admittedly provocative argument has two limbs. First, ever since Plato dismissed the people as a motley rabble in the same breath that he rejected certain rhythmic and melodic modes, music, sound, and listening have repeatedly been present at precisely those moments in the European political philosophical tradition when thinkers have sought to specify the limitations and especially the aporias of democracy. I suggest some explanations for the privileged status of this aural metaphorics and draw a number of conclusions from the historical vicissitudes of the concept of listening for understanding the contemporary situation in which there is paradoxically both a democratic deficit and a panacoustic excess of listening.

Second, the changes in social forms of listening are inseparable from and arguably even symptomatic of transformations in the conditions and practices of musical listening undergone as a result of digital mediations. The consumption of music through streaming services, together with the rise of digital personal assistant, affective listening technologies, and the judicial weaponization of forensic sound analysis, have combined to alter radically our attunement to our environment and to others around us. If our relation to this planet, and to the other human and non-human lives it supports, is a function of listening, who better than music analysts to clarify its intricacies, expose its risks, and advocate for its future possibilities?

Sarah Moynihan (St Anne’s College, Oxford), ‘Unpicking a static reception: unheard suspensions at the seams of Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela(20 November 2019)

Sibelius’s early tone poem, The Swan of Tuonela, has a long-established reception as a sound-sheet devoid of harmonic motion. Yet not only has this interpretation tended to ‘flatten’ features that do not conform to its idealized hearing as a static landscape – a swan gliding in the Finnish river –this particular reading also seems to have repelled rigorous analytical approaches. The work’s few dedicated investigations emphasize its ‘formlessness’ or describe it in terms similar to Glenda Dawn Goss, as an ‘exquisite moment of stasis’. What is more, its popularity and standing as an example of quintessential Sibelian symphonicism, have both supported the commonplace and, at times, exoticizing association of Sibelius’s music with proto-minimalist depictions of Finnish landscapes.

This seminar will reappraise what has, itself, become a static and enduring interpretation of The Swan of Tuonela by revealing that this Sibelian variation form is not, in fact, static. Small disruptive ‘tears’ or ‘slashes’ can be heard in the work’s fabric. At these breaks in the cor anglais’s recurring melody and at the ‘seams’ of the form, ‘timbral outsiders’ – to use John Sheinbaum’s term – call out across a conceptual distance. These Suspensions, in the Adornian sense, establish a dialogue with the cor anglais’s musical material that suggests a double-tonic complex between keys from different tonal systems. The paper will also introduce several new analytical tools to Sibelius’s music in a full voice-leading analysis of the piece, including ‘multivalent’ and ‘sonorous voice-leading’, and ‘timbral uncovering’. By examining a particular quirk in the work’s publication history, the textual transformation its programme, and unexamined markings in Sibelius’s copy of The Kalevala, the seminar will arrive at a new programmatic reading of the Swan of Tuonela that recontextualizes it in the heroic Kalevala-narrative of Sibelius’s suite of tone poems, Lemminkäinen,Op. 22.

Martin Stokes (King’s College, London), ‘Sentimental gesture and the politics of “shape” in the performances of Abd al-Halim Hafiz’ (29 January 2020)

Professor Stokes encourages all those attending the seminar to read a draft version of his paper in advance. The performance in question and an (accurate but not very poetic) translation of the text can be found here: (It includes in brackets the Nizar Qabbani, ‘original’ version of the poem, which is useful.)

Elizabeth Eva Leach (University of Oxford), ‘Imagining the un-encoded: analysing affect in a twelfth-century love song’ (26 February 2020)

This paper is a response to an article I published in Music Analysisin Spring 2019, with the title, ‘Do trouvère melodies mean anything?’ There, I examined three songs by the early trouvère Blondel de Nesle in which the melodies and poetic versification are so highly wrought and patently compositionally structured that the answer to the question was a clear ‘yes’. With the examples considered there, the dice are loaded: given that only pitches and poetic text survive from these songs, when those aspects are clearly a compositional focus, diagnosing meaning in pitch or text structure is relatively easy. In the current paper I will instead consider a different kind of case, a song in which the meanings are not fully—perhaps not even mainly—encoded in the structure of pitches, but might arguably have existed in other aspects of performance that are harder to get at given the nature of the surviving notated trace. The analytical procedure here must therefore be to investigate ways in which the performative aspects of this very generically structured song might have contributed to—might indeed have specifically enabled—its meaningfulness in performance. Because I am therefore talking about the performance of trouvère song, a topic about which we have virtually no secure historical information, the analytical method here is essentially speculative, creative, and imaginative, relying on the musicological and musical imagination of a contemporary medieval musicologist, rather than any medieval information, to offer an analysis of Blondel de Nesle’s Mes cuers me fait conmencier(RS1269).

Jack Boss (University of Oregon), Visions of moonlight and global coherence in “Mondestrunken” from Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire’ (29 April 2020)

The sixth chapter of my new book, Schoenberg’s Atonal Music, presents Pierrot lunaire as autobiographical.  The collection of 21 melodramas in three parts portrays Schoenberg being led astray into atonality by the moonlight of modernism, suffering the consequences (alienation from his audience, excoriation by the critics), and attempting to return to his older style but falling short.  These different stages of Pierrot/Schoenberg’s journey are depicted in each of the melodramas by “basic (visual) images” drawn from the first two lines of text that then motivate the pitch and rhythmic organization.  In my lecture, I will explain one of these basic images in detail: in “Mondestrunken,” the image of moonlight streaming down toward the composer in waves gives rise to unending chains of tetrachords linked by common pitch classes, that is, weak and strong Rp relations (Allen Forte’s term).  Though other images interrupt the steady streams of descending moonbeams at times, such as expanding and contracting intervallic “bodies” at the beginning of the second stanza, and the image of the unsteady poet at the beginning of the third, the melodrama returns again and again to the descending moonbeams, and in them it finds its coherence.

Chloë Zadeh (University of Manchester), ‘Femininities in circulation: gender, emotion and North Indian semi-classical music’ (13 May 2020)

In this talk, I explore the relationship between music, emotion and the social construction of gender. I do this by analysing how culture-specific models of femininity circulate in and through the music of the North Indian semi-classical vocal genre ṭhumrī. Musicians and listeners typically describe ṭhumrī as a genre that both expresses and elicits feminine forms of emotion. In a context where ideas about femininity are in flux, my research suggests that ṭhumrī serves as a powerful affective resource for musicians and listeners (especially women) to construct and inhabit gendered identities. Moreover, building on Sara Ahmed’s theorisation of “affective economies”, I show how the gendered emotions of ṭhumrī are mobilised to perform social and political work in the context of twenty-first century India. This work addresses the need for research on music, gender and emotion that considers both text and reception, combining music analysis with ethnographic research. Focussing on one performance, I draw on interviews with musicians and listeners to illuminate ways in which ṭhumrī’s (gendered) affective charge emerges from specific features of the musical sound. In doing so, I consider the extent to which Indian classical performers’ ways of understanding and talking about their own performances are themselves a kind of music analysis and I explore some of the implications of this for the broader project of decolonising music analysis. Through this work, I argue there is much to be gained by considering how musical styles and structures are implicated in wider affective economies and that such work can reveal how musical emotions contribute to the reproduction of large-scale structures of power and inequality.