Structure and expression in twelve-note music (with some notes, in conclusion, on the first movement of Dallapiccola's Rencesvals)

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The positivist mind-set that has typically characterised English-language analytical work on twelve-note music since the 1960s has frequently been criticised by scholars grounded in the tradition of philosophical aesthetics. And yet positivist approaches retain their mainstream status in respect to this repertoire, as if nothing had ever been said against them. The present essay takes up the critique, by returning to one of its oldest, yet most philosophically potent expressions, the 1967 essay, ‘Music Discomposed’, by Stanley Cavell. Drawing on the work of Cavell, but also of his fellow aestheticians Benedetto Croce and Theodor W. Adorno, the case is made here, once again, that positivism is fundamentally inappropriate as an approach to works of art, and specifically to those of the ‘classical’ twelve-note composers, which include not just the Second Viennese School, but also figures like Luigi Dallapiccola, born well before the ‘Darmstadt’ generation of the 1920s. In concentrating on matters of purely formal interest, positivist approaches neglect that aspect of ‘classical’ twelve-note music for which this repertoire continues to be valued by audiences (to the extent that it still is), namely its expressive dimension. The challenge for the analyst, then, is that of finding a way to bring the usual kind of formalistic observations made with respect to the structure of twelve-note compositions into contact with an appreciation of their expressive character. The latter, it is proposed, should be viewed as grounded in these works’ engagement with musical convention. This new analytical goal is not easily achieved; Adorno’s reading of the later Schoenberg, for example, is predicated on the idea that ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ elements (as he puts it) are irreconcilable in this music. An attempt is nevertheless made to demonstrate that structure and expression may be seen to be inextricably bound up with one another in twelve-note repertoire, by reference to the first movement of Dallapiccola’s 1946 song cycle Rencesvals.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLuigi Dallapiccola
Subtitle of host publicationPolitics, Text and Musical Thought
EditorsRoberto Illiano, Luca Lévi Sala
PublisherBrepols Publishers
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

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Not yet published as of 22/06/2023.


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