Accentual counterpoint and metrical narrative in the music of Brahms

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Bosworth, William Thomas 

This thesis introduces a web of concepts to analyse Brahmsian metre and move toward a more nuanced understanding of metrical expression and narrative in his music. Recent analytical studies of metre in common-practice Western classical music have utilised a powerful analogy of consonance and dissonance between tonal and metrical dimensions. More theoretical studies, particularly of Brahms’s music, have investigated how metrical states can be systematised, both abstractly and by Brahms, to create a sense of tonicity. This thesis synthesises and extends these approaches. Metrical dissonance is suggested to offer only an insufficient purchase on Brahms’s metrical style, and the concept of accentual counterpoint is suggested as an alternative that gives fuller power to the explication of Brahms’s metrical complexity, but without reducing that complexity. The complexity of metrical states that Brahms employs, in turn, is explored. Brahms’s path to the composition of extraordinary metrical complexity in his Op. 78 violin sonata shows both his increasing systematisation of metrical states and his increasing ability to separate and manipulate metrical accent-types, the latter supporting the concept of accentual counterpoint. That metre has expressive power invites the concept of metrical narrative. An attempt is made to unite a recent theory of musical narrative with metrical analysis, inviting readings of different narrative archetypes within Brahms’s metrical trajectories, with a focus on non-romantic narratives as a complement to traditional readings of unity. The pitch-metre analogy, and particularly the typicality of tonicity in metrical organisation, is problematised by those works by Brahms that begin and end in different notated metres. These instances, apparent manifestations of directional metre, are analysed, principally using the theories of hypermetre, metrical dissonance, metrical states and accentual counterpoint, with the hypothetical concepts of organisation (directional metre, metrical narrative and metrical tonicity) as interactive heuristics. Moving from organisation back to expression, the thesis closes by exploring a problem within current theories of form and phrase structure: the difference between musical expansion and extension. It highlights a metrical manifestation of this created as an effect of accentual counterpoint, dubbed metrical expansiveness, and examines the interaction of this effect with form and narrative.

Marston, Nicholas
Brahms, metre, rhythm, metrical dissonance, counterpoint, analysis
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge