There can be little doubt that Seth Monahan’s Mahler’s Symphonic Sonatas is the most important book-length analytical study of Mahler’s music in English. That might as well be faint praise: it is also one of surprisingly few books of its kind. As the author emphasizes in his introduction, serious analytical work on Mahler still is something of a rarity, and some of the best of that work comes from outside the discipline of music theory.1 One of the many merits of this monograph, therefore, is that it firmly (and finally!) embeds Mahler in the highly sophisticated discourse of modern North American music theory—more specifically the wave of theoretical and analytical work on musical form that is now commonly referred to as the “new Formenlehre.” Against the mainstream of Mahler studies, Monahan convincingly argues that sonata form is not an ossified remnant of the symphonic tradition that the composer nolens volens inherited, but an essential component of his art, at least up to Symphony No. 6. This does not mean that the music’s technical aspect is Monahan’s sole interest: through the analysis of musical form, he strives for a higher level of hermeneusis; “form itself,” he writes, “can be a vital source of meaning” (5). Nor would it be correct to assume that the hermeneusis is any more the outcome of the analysis than that it is the driving force behind it: one of the book’s distinctive characteristics is that both aspects are closely intertwined. The focus on musical form as well as the importance of hermeneutics betrays the centrality of James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s “sonata theory” in Monahan’s project —a centrality that is not surprising, given the origins of Monahan’s book in a dissertation completed in 2008 at Yale under Hepokoski’s supervision.2 A second and equally important point of departure is Adorno, whose writings on Mahler—especially, but not exclusively, the celebrated Mahler: Eine musikalische Physiognomik (1960)—have shaped a half century of Mahler scholarship. Like many before him, Monahan values Adorno more for the interpretive power of his ideas than for his specific analytical insights; the central category of “musical logic” with which Adorno operates is, in Monahan’s view, “chimerical” (50) and only minimally “resembles … a tool for applied analysis” (48).3 In order to find ways in which Adorno’s “critical program might feed into a rigorous, modern hermeneutics of form” (5), then, Monahan combines it with sonata theory, which in effect provides the analytical method that Adorno’s own writings lack.4 Monahan declares early on that his intention is, first and foremost, “to share readings of pieces” (7). The emphasis on analysis over theory is reflected in the volume’s tripartite structure. The method is laid out in three relatively compact chapters that together fill Part I of the book. The first chapter sets up the sonata-theoretical framework and illustrates what could be called Mahler’s “sonata-form practice” by means of thumbnail analyses of the first and last movements of the First Symphony and the opening movement of the Second. In the second chapter Monahan lays the basis for the dialogue with Adorno that runs through the argument. Chapter 3 introduces the author’s approach to musical narrativity and his ideas on the interaction between form and narrative. The bulk of the text then consists of four expansive and interrelated analytical chapters, each dedicated to an in-depth reading of a single movement: the first movement of the Sixth Symphony, the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, the first movement of the Third Symphony, and the finale of the Sixth Symphony (henceforth I will adopt Monahan’s numerical convention to refer to movements). The first two of these movements, grouped together in the book’s Part II, are instances of what Monahan calls Mahler’s “classical” sonata forms, whereas 3/I and 6/IV, discussed in Part III, are labeled as “epic.” Behind this distinction stands an Adornian insight fundamental to Monahan’s understanding of Mahler, namely that “Mahler’s music embod[ies] a conflict or contest between … a constructive formalism and an epic, emancipatory nominalism” (55). Some of Mahler’s sonata forms, that is to say, are on the whole more conventional and stay relatively close to normative sonata form or at least are continuously in dialogue with it, while others are remarkably free and individualistic (the distinction between the two is not entirely dissimilar to that between Mark Evan Bonds’s familiar concepts of “conformational” and “generative” form).5 But formalism and nominalism—top-down and bottom-up modes of musical organization—are not just two different kinds of form that manifest themselves in different pieces: as tendencies, they are present (and, indeed, collide) in all of Mahler’s works. Mahler’s Symphonic Sonatas is as rich and layered as the movements it analyses. (Two features that make it considerably easier to navigate Mahler’s large and complex forms, incidentally, are the very clear and detailed form diagrams, as well as the collection of annotated short scores on the companion website.) For the purposes of this review, and at the expense of several of these layers (such as the hermeneutic and narrative aspect, the dialogue with Adorno, and the contribution to Mahler studies per se), I will read the book primarily as a landmark contribution to the new Formenlehre. Monahan’s volume is the first to consistently apply the sonata-theoretical approach to multiple complete movements by a single composer and thus deserves serious—and, at times, critical—engagement with its methodological foundations. Monahan’s analyses operate within a “doubly intertextual framework” (4): on the one hand, individual movements from Mahler’s symphonies are understood as being in dialogue with the formal genre sonata form; on the other hand, those same movements are understood as being in dialogue with each other. The interlocutors in these two dialogues are not all of the same kind. In the dialogue between movements (or between symphonies), they are very specific; they are given. When, for instance, Monahan writes that 6/IV “entails the wholesale negation of two preceding sonata-form movements … : 6/I and 3/I” (219), we know what those other movements are and how they go. In the dialogue between an individual movement and sonata form in general, however, the latter interlocutor first needs to be (re)constructed: what, in other words, does Monahan mean when he says “sonata form”? The answer is strikingly straightforward. “A surprisingly ‘traditional’ concept of sonata form,” Monahan writes, “informs all of Mahler’s early and middle-period symphonies—not as a rigid or binding schema, but as a paradigmatic tonal and thematic drama” (12). Immediately after, this is fleshed out as Hepokoski and Darcy’s normative late-eighteenth-century sonata form (complete with a reproduction of their well-known diagram ), thus fulfilling those authors’ promise that one can use their model for the analysis of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century pieces.6 The evident chronological gap between the analytical model and the repertoire to which it is applied may suggest a strictly presentist perspective that views Mahler’s sonata forms through the lens of a decidedly twenty-first-century theory, and that whenever “Mahler” appears in the text, it is as what Monahan has elsewhere called a “fictional composer” rather than a historical individual.7 Yet this is clearly not his position here: Mahler the historical individual is very present throughout the book, not only because aspects of his inner and outer biography are crucially important for the hermeneutic side of Monahan’s study (cf. the final section heading in the chapter on 6/I: “The Allegro as Musical Autobiography” ), but also because the author is intent on tracing the “surprisingly ‘traditional’ concept of sonata form” mentioned above back to the historical Mahler. For Monahan, in other words, Mahler’s understanding of sonata form around 1900 really is very close to what Beethoven understood it to be around 1810. Documentary evidence for this is scant. Monahan cites two comments Mahler made to his confidante Natalie Bauer-Lechner in the late 1890s, one about the “profound, eternal laws” that his works have in common with Haydn’s and Beethoven’s, another about “the usual formal mould” (19). Neither statement abounds with specificity; the only detail Mahler provides about “the usual formal mould” is that it means a movement beginning and ending in the same key.8 And since the symphony in which Mahler recognized Haydn’s and Beethoven’s “laws” was his Third—of all the works Monahan analyzes, the one whose first movement is the farthest removed from conventional sonata form—it is not at all clear what exactly the composer may have had in mind.9 Monahan’s definition of what Mahler would have said sonata form was is, therefore, at least partly arbitrary. And he at times comes close to admitting as much, for instance when he writes that “a composer of Mahler’s generation might be entering into dialogue with a … daunting array of models” (17), or when he concedes that the generic frame of reference relies on one’s analytical aims (20). The latter especially rings true, of course, and one cannot deny that Monahan’s choice to operate with a classical definition of sonata form works for the kind of analysis-cum-hermeneusis he wants to present and for the stories he wants to tell. One could say that what his model lacks in historical nuance, it gains in interpretive directness, and given that his emphasis is on analysis (“readings of pieces”) rather than theory formation, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It nonetheless bears emphasizing how radical Monahan’s choice is: in effect it virtually sidesteps close to a century of sonata-form (or, for that matter, symphonic) history. The book’s index is telling in this respect. It lists eighteen references to specific pieces by Beethoven, but only three to works by Schubert and Strauss, two to Brahms, one each to Bruckner and Liszt, and none at all to works by composers such as Mendelssohn, Schumann, Dvořák, or Tchaikovsky. But surely Mahler must have had some of these composers’ works on his mind (or even on his music stand!) at least some of the time, and so they would have had an impact on his ideas about sonata form. At the very least, it would seem possible to construct a wholly different interpretive context for Mahler’s sonata-form practice—and, as a result, to write an entirely different book about it. Historical considerations aside, one is at times struck by the disconnect between the specificity of Hepokoski and Darcy’s analytical model and the relatively general work Monahan requires it to do. From the outset, Monahan emphasizes not sonata theory’s flexible yet detailed script that unfolds over time (the sequence of events on the musical surface), but the broader underlying sonata trajectory that is organized around the attainment of two crucial cadences at the end of the exposition and at the end of the recapitulation (Hepokoski and Darcy’s EEC and ESC). Monahan’s first example of a Mahlerian sonata form, 1/I, is programmatic in this respect: because the movement is both highly unschematic in its layout and very orthodox in terms of its overall sonata trajectory (at least when it comes to the cadential goals in the exposition and recapitulation), it exemplifies extremely graphically which aspects are essential to Monahan’s definition of sonata form, and which are not. This deemphasizing of sonata form’s schematic aspect sounds both reasonable and familiar (even though it does not necessarily sit all that comfortably with Mahler’s own talk, quoted above, of a “formal mould” into which he liked to pour his musical content). It does not, however, change the fact that the differences in the way the script plays out in all the pieces that Hepokoski and Darcy call sonata forms are more modest than the differences between those pieces and some of the Mahler movements Monahan calls sonata forms. Put differently: many more things can happen, or cannot happen, in a Mahlerian sonata form than in a classical one. For many previous authors writing on Mahler, this has been exactly what makes his forms not sonata forms (or at least what led them to qualify the category when applied to Mahler). The benefits of Monahan’s decision to break with that tradition and to read Mahler’s symphony movements emphatically as sonata forms are obvious. But if everything about Hepokoski and Darcy’s normative sonata form—except for the EEC and the ESC—is indeed optional, then it can be difficult not to wonder whether it really is the best lens through which to view these movements. One reason why Monahan adopts Hepokoski and Darcy’s model is that his method requires an abstract, a priori notion of sonata form, rather than an a posteriori one that is based empirically on Mahler’s own practice.10 As a “regulative idea” (18), the model is relevant even when it does not materialize: a movement is in sonata form not only when the EEC and the ESC—as the model’s only nonoptional aspects—are present, but also when they are not. The dialogue with an abstract norm that is implied even when negated is, of course, a central tenet of deformation theory. And an emphasis on cadential or tonal “success” or “failure” is the hallmark of Monahan’s analytical narratives. For an analyst so invested in cadential closure, however, Monahan is strangely vague about what, exactly, counts as a PAC. That becomes an issue in the analysis of 4/I. A crucial moment in Monahan’s reading of the movement is the “defective EEC” (152) at m. 58, shown in Example 1. Although the measures immediately before strongly suggest an impending cadence, he argues, a PAC fails to materialize. It would be hard to disagree. When the tonic chord arrives at m. 58, it is in root position but with scale-degree 3 on top; the dominant and the tonic are separated by a Luftpause in the score, and the texture, instrumentation, and tempo on either side of the Luftpause are completely different. The tonic at m. 58 is the beginning of a new phrase rather than the end of the preceding one; this is an evaded cadence (EC) if ever there was one. Example 1. View largeDownload slide Mahler, Symphony No. 4, I: evaded cadence in mm. 54–58 Example 1. View largeDownload slide Mahler, Symphony No. 4, I: evaded cadence in mm. 54–58 Monahan contrasts the “EEC-complications” (151) at m. 58 with the exposition’s main theme, during which “cadences come often and effortlessly” (154). He identifies four of them, at mm. 8 (recte: 7), 18, 21, and 32. The cadence at m. 7 (Ex. 2a) and its only slightly varied return at m. 21 are indeed unproblematic PACs. (It is worth noting, incidentally, that the entire four-measure phrase that opens the main theme is a classic instance of an expanded cadential progression or ECP; the theme starts with an ending but lacks a true beginning.)11 But the situation at m. 18 and, especially, m. 32 is more complicated. As Example 2b shows, the music at m. 18 moves from V to I in root position, with 7^- 1^ in the upper voice. Yet the textural rupture is not much less drastic than at m. 58: almost all of the instruments that play in the lead-up to the cadence either drop out right before the cadential moment or change roles; the 7^– 1^ in violin 1, moreover, is part of an anacrusis; it surely is not a melodic cadence. The sense of evasion is even stronger at m. 32 (Ex. 2c). The bassoons’ 5^ in the bass at m. 30 leads, via a heavily embellished 4^ in the cello and double bass in m. 31, to a 3^ on the downbeat of m. 32, so that the tonic harmony appears in first inversion; the upper voice of the dominant chord has 7^, but it drops out at the moment of resolution; and the clarinets, who carry the melody on the downbeat, start a new phrase but do not end the previous one. In short, mm. 32 and 58 are so similar (in fact the bass pattern for the first two beats of m. 32 is identical to that in m. 58, at twice the speed and starting from 3^ instead of 1^) that it seems untenable that one would be a PAC (and an “effortless” one at that) yet the other one would not. Example 2. View largeDownload slide Mahler, Symphony No. 4, I. Three cadential situations in the exposition’s main theme: (a) mm. 4–7, (b) mm. 16–18, and (c) mm. 30–32. Example 2. View largeDownload slide Mahler, Symphony No. 4, I. Three cadential situations in the exposition’s main theme: (a) mm. 4–7, (b) mm. 16–18, and (c) mm. 30–32. None of this necessarily invalidates Monahan’s overall reading of the exposition. The most plausible interpretation of both moments, in my view, is as evaded cadences. Monahan’s analysis of m. 58 thus stands. A more serious objection is that if m. 58 is indeed the failed cadence where everything goes awry, then the music itself seems blissfully unaware of what it has just done wrong. True, mm. 58ff. are not the most assertive, but there is also no sense of crisis—rather one of innocence or oblivion. And yet Monahan elsewhere writes that Mahler’s “structural failures are always tied to broader, easily perceived topical/expressive narratives” (20). I do not see that here. And I do not see it at the end of 6/I—an analogous instance, in Monahan’s reading, of a failed recapitulation—either. In 6/I, the subordinate theme in the recapitulation ends with an impeccable PAC, but it is in the wrong key. Yet like in 4/I (and even more obviously so), this failure is limited to the cadence itself; it does not affect the music around it. (Monahan is obviously aware of this: “There are no outward signs of ‘failure’ at all,” he writes .) Moreover, it is easy to imagine a more negative scenario in 6/I, for instance an EEC in the home key of A minor.12 The unsuccessful cadence at m. 58 is not the only instance of a failed EEC in Monahan’s reading of 4/I. He analyzes mm. 1–101 as a double exposition (or perhaps more precisely as an exposition-and-a-half): after the first exposition has concluded without a satisfactory EEC, a written-out exposition repeat limited to the main theme begins at m. 72. This main theme ends with a PAC in the tonic at m. 91. Monahan’s elevates this moment to an (attempted) EEC—an analytical decision that is nothing short of extravagant. An EEC in a two-part exposition, by definition, comes at the end of the secondary theme or S zone and confirms the modulation to the subordinate key; an EEC fails if it occurs in the wrong key, or if something is wrong with the cadence itself. If the cadence at m. 91 is an EEC, then of course it fails, because it is in the wrong key. But what other key could it have been in, at this point in the form? And can a cadence at the end of a main theme even be an EEC? And if so, can a main theme that ends with a PAC in the tonic—the only available key for the conclusion of a main theme—constitute a failure? Like in other instances of failed EEC, the music proceeds as if all is well: the topical content of mm. 91ff. is pastoral, even idyllic, their intrinsic formal function postcadential, suggesting a codetta or even a coda; and compared to the analogous cadence at m. 32, the one at m. 91 clearly is more successful. Again, one wonders what the criteria are, and how far they can be stretched before the categories of EEC and ESC become meaningless. If criteria are so flexible, would it be any less plausible to hear m. 91 as, say, the ESC in the curtailed recapitulation of a sonatina form (“Type 1” in Hepokoski and Darcy’s parlance) that is then retrospectively reinterpreted as an aborted exposition repeat once the development kicks in at m. 102? It seems to me that Monahan is so eager to hear m. 91 as a failed EEC primarily because success and failure are what the story he wants to tell is about; as I noted earlier, the hermeneusis often directs his analysis as much as the analysis leads to the hermeneusis. Yet while there obviously are moments of success and failure in Mahler’s sonata forms, and while it would be unwise not to engage with them, the success/failure narrative seems more forced in some movements than in others. And even in movements in which the question of success or failure is relevant, I for one remain unconvinced that either of them is exclusively, or even primarily, expressed by the attainment or non-attainment of a specific cadence at a specific point in time.13 *** As soon as a review goes too deep into disagreements about specific analyses, it risks sounding more negative than it was intended. There is much to learn from Monahan’s analyses—also that of 4/I. Mahler’s Symphonic Sonatas contains the most detailed, sophisticated, and insightful analytical readings of Mahler’s music in existence. From every one of the book’s analyses, the reader comes away with the intensely satisfying feeling of having come to know, indeed understand, a great piece of music better. If only more music theory were like this! For those reasons alone, the book is a milestone. No one working on Mahler, or even large-scale instrumental music from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in general, can afford to ignore it. And perhaps future studies on this repertoire will find that Monahan’s analyses can help to create an interpretive context that replaces, complements, or nuances the overly crude and historically unspecific analytical model with which he himself has had to operate. Footnotes 1 Most other theoretical books on Mahler in English are monographic studies of individual works; a notable example is Samuels (1995). A recent illustration of the continuing indifference of mainstream English-language Mahler scholarship to analysis is the collection Rethinking Mahler (Barham ). Incidentally, the situation on the European continent is not very different, especially as far as books are concerned. I was nonetheless surprised to see that Monahan’s bibliography does not include a single one of Christian Martin Schmidt’s several publications on Mahler, most notably Schmidt (2001). 2 On sonata theory, see Hepokoski and Darcy (2006). 3 See also Monahan, 222–23. For a brief summary of the traditional objections to the music-analytical component of Adorno’s writings, see Vande Moortele (2015, 414–15). 4 Monahan indicates his awareness that Adorno’s negative dialectics and Hepokoski and Darcy’s sonata theory make for strange bed-fellows (see especially 52–56). And as I have shown elsewhere, resorting to sonata theory is not the only way in which the gaps in Adorno’s analytical method may be filled; see Vande Moortele (2015). Monahan and I do seem to be in broad agreement, though, that Adorno can and should be complemented with modern music-theoretical approaches to musical form. 5 Bonds (1991, 13–14). 6 Hepokoski and Darcy (2006, vii). 7 Monahan (2013, 329). 8 Bauer-Lechner (1923, 120). 9 Bauer-Lechner (1923, 49). Elsewhere (1923, 19) Bauer-Lechner quotes Mahler as saying about the Third: “In nichts hält sie sich an die herkömmliche Form” (In nothing does it conform to the traditional form.) 10 On a priori and a posteriori conceptions of analytical models, see Horton (2017, 34–37). 11 On the ECP, see Caplin (1998, 109–11). 12 Monahan notes something very similar about the major-mode but off-tonic return of the subordinate theme in the recapitulation of 2/I (“A more dire outcome would have been a presentation of S in the tonic minor” ), but he does not make this point in relation to 6/I. 13 This is the case even though Monahan directly addresses “skeptics” like me (19). Works cited Adorno Theodor W. 1960 . Mahler: Eine musikalische Physiognomik . Frankfurt am Main : Suhrkamp . Barham Jeremy , Ed. 2017 . Rethinking Mahler . Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Bauer-Lechner Natalie. 1923 . Erinnerungen an Gustav Mahler . Leipzig, Vienna, and Zurich : E. P. Tal . Bonds Mark Evan. 1991 . Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration . Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Caplin William E. 1998 . Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the Instrumental Music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven . Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press . Hepokoski James , Darcy Warren . 2006 . Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types, and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata . Oxford and New York : Oxford University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Horton Julian. 2017 . Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 83: Analytical and Contextual Studies . Leuven : Peeters . Monahan Seth. 2013 . “Action and Agency Revisited.” Journal of Music Theory 57 ( 2 ): 321 – 71 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Samuels Robert. 1995 . Mahler’s Sixth Symphony: A Study in Musical Semiotics . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Schmidt Christian Martin. 2001 . “Analytische Rezeption als Stachel und Ansporn: Zur Form des ersten Satzes von Mahlers Zweiter Symphonie.” In Rezeption als Innovation: Untersuchungen zu einem Grundmodell der europäischen Kompositionsgeschichte—Festschrift für Friedhelm Krummacher zum 65. Geburtstag . Ed. Sponheuer Bernd , Oechsle Siegfried , Well Helmut . 387 – 95 . Kassel : Bärenreiter . Vande Moortele Steven. 2015 . “The Philosopher as Theorist: Adorno’s materiale Formenlehre.” In Formal Functions in Perspective: Essays on Musical Form from Haydn to Adorno. Ed. Moortele Steven Vande , Pedneault-Deslauriers Julie , Martin Nathan John . 411 – 33 . Rochester, NY : University of Rochester Press . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Society for Music Theory. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Music Theory Spectrum – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 6, 2018
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