University of Sussex
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On topics today

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-08, 09:20 authored by Nicholas McKay
This article surveys the state of so-called topic theory today. It charts its development through two generations of topic theorists. The first is constructed around three influential texts: Leonard Ratners seminal book that established the discipline in its own right, Classic music: expression, form and style (1980); Wye Allanbrooks. Rhythmic gesture in Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni (1983); and Kofi Agawus. Playing with signs: a semiotic interpretation of classical music (1991). The second comprises significant advances in topic theory essayed through two further pairs of texts: Robert Hattens Musical meaning in Beethoven: markedness, correlation, and interpretation (1994) and Interpreting musical gestures, topics, and tropes: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert (2004); and Raymond Monelles Linguistics and semiotics in music (1992) and The sense of music: semiotic essays (2000). Topic Theory's role as the soft hermeneutic sub-field of music semiotics (relative to the harder, formalist practices of Nattiezs neutral level analysis) is portrayed here as navigating a number of treacherous polemical paths. These wend their way between referential style (expression) and structural syntax (form); historical reconstruction and hermeneutic construction; and heightened sensitivity to social meanings and imposed acts of creative interpretation. This existence of topic theory in a continuous dialogue between structural formalism and the semantics of expressive discourse is held responsible for its marginal position both to the dominant strains of contemporary postmodern musicology and to the dying embers of formalist analysis. The failure of topic theory to strike a fashionable text-context balance thus highlights why musicology continues to view semiotics with scepticism. Ratner presents his thesaurus of style labelssomewhat dubiouslyas the historically authentic ready-to-hand materials (types and styles) of eighteenth-century expressive musical rhetoric. But it is Agawus combination of this universe of topics with a Schenker-influenced beginning-middle-end paradigm that establishes the hallmark of first generation topic theory on which the first half of this paper focuses. Agawus delicate equation between extroversive and introversive semiosis is essayed as a pivotal turning point in topic theorys ability to transcend the mere passive ascription of rhetorical labels. Out of this equation, expressive meanings can ariseas much from the non-congruence, as the congruence, of signs and structure. Hatten's critique of Agawu for neglecting the full interpretative consequences of his signifieds is the springboard for his more hermeneutically replete brand of topic theory and the emergence of the second generation topic theorists. Hattens use of troping (a kind of musical metaphor), is one of many interpretative tools that are responsible for broadening the arena of topic theorysome of his others being: expressive genres, emergent meanings and markedness theory. These are deployed across a variety of musical parameters as Hattens attention increasingly turns to the prototypicality of topics in their euphoric and dysphoric states. Hattens interpretative work is shown to transcend historical reconstruction to comprise creative interpretation built on a much broader definition of expressive gestures, of which topics are only a constituent part. The article concludes with Monelles expos of the dubious historical underpinnings of Ratners topic theory foundations. This does not render this vibrant branch of semiotics redundant but, on the contrary, charts its future direction as one calling out for far deeper historical investigation and cultural criticism. Monelles enlightening forays into the more replete expressive meanings of such topics as the horse and pianto make this point abundantly clear. The future of topics today, if not musicology in general, is one of cultural criticism.


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Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie







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  • Music Publications


This article was written at the invitation of the editorial board of the Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft fur Musiktheorie for their special issue on "satzmodelle" or "topoi". These concepts, familiar to German musicology, have developed somewhat in isolation from the topic theory tradition of Anglo-American semiotic analysis. This extended critical review-article was thus commissioned to chart the rise of topic-theory from its emergence as a sub-branch of music semiotic analysis in the 1980s with the influential work of Ratner, Allanbrooke and Agawu, through to its more recent twenty-first century contextual-historical and hermeneutic applications by Monelle and Hatten. One of its aims was thus to raise awareness of the contemporary state of topic theory for a German musicological audience more familiar with the traditions of "satzmodelle" or "topoi". Far from offering a passive review or mere state of the discipline paper, however, the article argues that topic theory's resistance to the hegemonic text-context demarcation of analysis/theory and critical interpretation is both symptomatic of its marginalisation from contemporary mainstream musicology and yet at the same time offers a viable counter to the new musicology's continued erosion of analysis.

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