The aim of this research project is to contribute to a better understanding of musical form in instrumental music of the romantic era through the contextually informed study of a representative sample from a generically specific repertoire: concert and operatic overtures in Germany, Italy, and France between 1815 and 1850.
While interest in musical form has flourished over the past decades, it has focused on instrumental works by the classical composers Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Existing work on musical form in the romantic era, moreover, has been confined both in repertoire choice and methodology. It concentrates largely on music by Germanic composers and relies on a “negative” methodology, using the established conventions of the classical style as a norm against which form in 19th-century music is measured. It thus inevitably leads to a view of romantic music that is not only geographically biased, but that also tends to understand it implicitly as the decadence of classical models.
The proposed project develops a more balanced theory of romantic form that transcends both of these limitations by expanding the repertoire on which that theory is based and by embracing a more positive methodology that, instead of being an adaptation of theories initially designed for 18th-century music, is primarily grounded in 19th-century practice itself. Within the discipline of music theory, the project forms an important contribution to the expanding field of studies in musical form; more broadly, it fosters a better understanding and increased appreciation of a repertoire that continues to be a staple of modern-day concert halls and opera houses.
The repertoire under consideration is centered around a substantial corpus of concert and opera overtures written between 1820 and 1850. This choice of repertoire is not arbitrary. Including works by the era’s major composers, it reflects the various national traditions that coexisted within that period’s musical culture. Moreover, the overture was regarded at the time as a central musical genre, in spite of modern scholarship’s tendency to underestimate it. Straddled between opera house and concert hall, it can even be considered the most typically romantic of all large-scale instrumental genres. Through the combination of its functional origins in theatrical practice, the concomitant stylistic flexibility and limited weight of generic traditions in comparison to other genres of orchestral music, the confrontation of different national traditions, and in many cases the presence of an extra-musical program, the overture constitutes a refuge for formal experimentation that was impossible in other, more traditional genres such as the symphony.
The project rests on three methodological pillars. For its technical aspect, it takes as a starting point the categories developed for the analysis of pre-1810 instrumental music by William Caplin and, to a lesser extent, James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy. These categories will be recalibrated and expanded in order to account for the specificity of form in romantic music. For its interpretative work, the project uses an expanded version of Hepokoski and Darcy's concept of dialogic form that replaces the unidirectional model of classical norm and romantic deformation by a complex web of concurrent, partially overlapping, and sometimes contradictory dialogues in which the genre of the overture is engaged. In order to facilitate the application of these twenty-first-century approaches to a romantic repertoire, these are complemented with perspectives gleaned from the contemporaneous (early 19th-century) critical and theoretical discourse that surrounds the genre of the overture.
The early stages of the project were funded by a grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung (Germany). Currently, the project is supported both by the Connaught Fund of the University of Toronto (2011-15) and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2014-17).