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Thread: The Formenlehre

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    Senior Member Ramako's Avatar
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    Default The Formenlehre

    Formenlehre, which is basically the German for 'the study of form', is quite an old discipline in music theory fully established in the nineteenth century with, for example, A.B. Marx's codification of sonata form. In the theory, there are certain formal archetypes, allegedly derived from the works of the masters (Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven), of which the most famous and important is sonata form. For example, sonata form consists of an exposition (in which there are two themes separated by a transition), development (in which the themes are, surprisingly, developed) and recapitulation (again, pretty much does what it says on the tin - the themes in their original form return, this time in the home key). Pieces of music in sonata form were expected to have a first theme, and a second theme, and so on - indeed, some writers went so far as to censored composers for any deviation from these established forms, while other critics did the opposite and railed against any who lacked the originality to depart from these accepted forms.

    The formenlehre fell out favour significantly in the twentieth century, however, as being 'pedantic' and 'inorganic'. One problem for it was that many pieces of music which are allegedly in the forms elaborated by the theory by the classical masters, deviate in obvious ways from the types described by the textbooks. Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of these ideas, often called the New Formenlehre, which seeks to revive what is good about them, while reforming what is bad. There are currently two main approaches, largely following William Caplin's theory of formal functions on the one hand, and Hepokoski and Darcy's Sonata Theory on the other.

    Caplin's theory of formal functions (which is largely inspired by Schoenberg) goes into a lot more detail than the old formenlehre did, but also attempts to give some meaning to otherwise empty classifications. No longer is labelling the first and second theme, exposition or development section enough: Caplin classifies themes into sentences, periods and hybrid forms. He even goes down onto the scale of one or two bar units, breaking these themes down into their constituent 'formal functions' (from where the theory gets its name). This is where his theory is at its best, and where it is most superior to the old Formenlehre. Instead of just classifying sections and giving general descriptions of what these sections are meant to be like (such as the infamous 'masculine' and 'feminine' characterisations of the first and second themes), he describes the temporal effect these functions have in terms of whether they create the sense of 'beginning-ness', 'middle-ness' or 'end-ness'. This means that when the music departs from the standard types, as it frequently does, this theory is still able to offer an analysis which describes its effect in some considerable detail.

    Hepokoski and Darcy's Sonata Theory also goes into a lot more detail, and attempts to breathe life into the classifications, but does so entirely differently. Taking each stage of sonata form in turn, they enumerate the most standard types of things the music does at this point (called 'norms', and order these in terms of their frequency. Thus, a piece of music at each stage can either do something normal, something fairly normal but still noteworthy, or something completely unusual, in which case the norm is overridden in what they call a 'deformation'. What the norms for a piece of music are change with when it was written: for example, in the eighteenth century, it was normal for a major-mode exposition to modulate to the dominant for the second theme and doing anything else would be a serious deformation, while by the end of the nineteenth century, alternative key choices to the dominant were quite common, and perhaps only worthy of passing comment in an analysis. In their view, a competent listener of a piece in sonata form hears the music against the background of these norms, and the music is powerful by using these norms in inventive, clever and/or expressive ways.


    I can answer any questions concerning this stuff, at least the more recent of it. I've had to make a few generalisations so sorry if anything is unclear. General discussion and comments are the purpose of this thread however.

    If anyone is interested to look further, the most important references are:

    William Caplin, Classical Form: A Theory of Formal Functions for the instrumental music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

    James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy, Elements of Sonata Theory: Norms, Types and Deformations in the Late-Eighteenth-Century Sonata, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
    Last edited by Ramako; Feb-19-2015 at 00:35.

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Ramako View Post
    Formenlehre, which is basically the German for 'the study of form', is quite an old discipline in music theory fully established in the nineteenth century with, for example, A.B. Marx's codification of sonata form?
    Although Marx wrote about "textbook" sonata form, it is worth pointing out that Antoine Reicha codified the form much earlier, in his Traité de haute composition musicale (1824-26). The textbook form is, as your post suggests, a kind of prescription for an ideal type accommodating romantic conceptions of the form rather than actually describing the general practice of the Classical Era.

    Quote Originally Posted by Ramako View Post
    Instead of just classifying sections and giving general descriptions of what these sections are meant to be like (such as the infamous 'masculine' and 'feminine' characterisations of the first and second themes), [Caplin] describes the temporal effect these functions have in terms of whether they create the sense of 'beginning-ness', 'middle-ness' or 'end-ness'.
    The "characterizations" to which you refer are only infamous because Susan McClary took them out of context in order to politicize them. She cited an isolated passage in a didactic work in which Marx employed a metaphor which he was careful to qualify as only partially applicable. Anyone who knows Marx's criticism and other writing, and McClary demonstrates no familiarity, knows that this characterization had nothing to do with his general thinking on sonata form.
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Feb-19-2015 at 17:40.

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    Senior Member Dim7's Avatar
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    As far as I understand the "contrasting characters" ("masculine" and "feminine") of theme groups was more of a romantic than classical thing, or was it?
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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    ---- Consolidated into my first post ----
    Last edited by EdwardBast; Feb-19-2015 at 15:03.

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    Senior Member EdwardBast's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dim7 View Post
    As far as I understand the "contrasting characters" ("masculine" and "feminine") of theme groups was more of a romantic than classical thing, or was it?
    Yes, as Ramako hints, this idea of thematic contrast or even opposition was a prescription for romantic composers interested in reproducing the dramatic effects of archetypal works by Mozart and Beethoven (e.g., Mozart 40/i and Beethoven 5/i) and has nothing in particular to do with classical practice.

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    Senior Member millionrainbows's Avatar
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    In his Structural Functions of Harmony, Schoenberg gives us his classifications of root movements, which are ascending or descending (strong or weak).
    "The way out is through the door. Why is it that no one will use this method?"
    -Confucious

    "In Spring! In the creation of art it must be as it is in Spring!" -Arnold Schoenberg

    "We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us." -Jean-Paul Sartre

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