Sound and semantics: topics in the music of Arnold Schoenberg

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Sound and semantics: topics in the music of Arnold Schoenberg

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Arnold Schoenberg's music consistently invites criticism and analysis, much of which has used the tools of pitch-class set theory to focus on issues of structure and coherence rather than considerations of musical meaning. Because these approaches emphasize Schoenberg's break with tonality they fail to recognize the continuity of this repertory with its cultural and historical precursors, and thus minimize the extent to which we perceive Schoenberg as influenced by or in dialogue with earlier composers. Furthermore, because of their focus on pitch content, they tend to neglect the expressive potential of this music. By approaching Schoenberg's music with the tools of musical topic theory, the connections between this music and its historical and cultural contexts can be demonstrated and issues of musical meaning can be explored. Part I: Historical Background explores the historical context necessary for the analysis of Schoenberg's music. Chapter 1 surveys the analytical trends applied to Schoenberg's music through their approach to musical meaning; Chapter 2 provides a literature review of topic theory, addresses critiques thereof, and explores issues pertaining to our understanding of new topics. Part II: Analytical Approaches demonstrates four different applications of topical analysis. Chapter 3 considers the intersection of topics and leitmotiv in Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande to demonstrate how the topics and structure of the various leitmotivs convey and create associations between characters and ideas in the drama. Chapter 4 compares the use of the pianto and the chorale topic in all periods of Schoenberg's career, arguing that their presence in the atonal and twelve-tone works is increasingly motivated by issues of program and text. Chapter 5 features an in-depth analysis of the second of the Three Piano Pieces, Op. 11, using the unfolding of the topics to create a narrative that accounts for the tonal and atonal elements in the piece. Chapter 6 provides a lexicon of the topics in Schoenberg's atonal music which includes descriptions of the musical signifier and the cultural signifieds, multiple examples of the topic, and both earlier and later instances of similar passages from Schoenberg's work.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2013. Major: Music. Advisors: Sumanth Gopinath, Michael Cherlin. 1 computer file (PDF): vi, 291 pages.

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Narum, Jessica. (2013). Sound and semantics: topics in the music of Arnold Schoenberg. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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