Journeys through Romantic Music: Towards an Expressive Approach to Musical Structure

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On the threshold of the nineteenth century, we witness a radical change in aesthetic values. Reality gives way to imagination, nature to sensibility, completion to incompletion. These changes affect music not only in its generic stylistic features but also – and more intriguingly – in its structure which, faced with the new Romantic imagery, begins to expand its traditional boundaries and engages in a negotiation with the long-established common practice, so that “many of the components of that system continue to function as prototypes for new, […] nineteenth-century harmonic structures […]” [Stein 1985].

This turn is particularly evident in Lied, the Romantic genre par excellence. Yet, despite its widespread diffusion, analytic literature has often approached song as a mere extension of instrumental music, largely applying to it procedures designed for music without text. However, “although nothing in principle precludes the application of such techniques to non-instrumental works, song analysis accepts the transfer only with some difficulty” [Agawu 1992].

If we consider “song” not merely as the sum of two different semiotic systems, but as a process whose expressive impact is defined by a syntactic blend resulting from the music-text interface, then instrumental-music-based analytical procedures raise a number of issues. How to take into account the manifold deformational aspects that largely enliven Lieder? How to avoid overemphasising text/music correspondences at the expense of non-correspondences? And how to reconcile music surface and deep structure without neglecting the expressive relevance of one or the other?

Our contribution attempts to fill in these gaps:

  • by assuming that musical structures have their own expressive properties that can be activated by external boosts, either explicit (such as a poem or drama) or implicit (such as a poetic or cultural landscape);  
  • by proposing analytical readings that, rather than striving for congruence with a normalising structural ‘image’, try to mediate the relationship between normative and non-normative procedures;
  • by taking a reverse perspective according to which structural deformations inferred from music with text can serve as a kind of expressive vocabulary, also applicable to Romantic instrumental music which may thus benefit from an additional analytical approach beyond the traditional one.