'Nineteenth-Century' Subdominants

The harmonic dualist notion of two commensurate “systems”—authentic and plagal— proposed by Daniel Harrison in 1994 has not been widely accepted, but it enabled him to uncover strong plagal elements in the music of late nineteenth-century composers, and it gives much heft to the generally accepted view that the subdominant acquired greater autonomy in music of the fin-de-siècle. If we allow for the idea that the subdominant and the dominant play dual, though emphatically unequal, roles in tonal music, then it might follow that the subdominant in ascendency suggests the dominant in decline.  Are there signs within Austro-German music of the earlier nineteenth century that the subdominant had begun to assume this more ascendant status? I answer in the affirmative, with examples from the music of Beethoven, Schubert, Hensel, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Wagner, and the young Brahms. Instances of the affective character of the subdominant in this music run the gamut—from associations with the pastorale, with the world of night and dreams and magic, to implications of the ecstatic and, finally, to the expression of deepest grief. 


Janet Schmalfeldt

Tufts University

Professor Emerita

BA and BMus, Lawrence University
MMA, Piano Performance, Yale School of Music
PhD, Music Theory, Yale University, 1979

Janet Schmalfeldt joined the Department of Music at Tufts University in 1995, where she is now Professor Emerita; she previously taught at McGill University and at Yale. In recent years, she has offered graduate courses as a visiting professor in the music departments at the University of Chicago (2014), Harvard (2015), Boston University (2016), and the University of Pavia, in Cremona (October 2017). She is the author of a book on Alban Berg's opera Wozzeck and has published widely on eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century music. Her book In the Process of Becoming: Analytic and Philosophical Perspectives on Form in Early Nineteenth-Century Music (2011) received a 2012 ASCAP – Deems Taylor Award and the 2012 Wallace Berry Award from the Society for Music Theory. She has served as President of the New England Conference of Music Theorists and of the Society for Music Theory. As an invited speaker, she has held seminars and workshops on musical form, performance, and analysis in Brazil, Italy, and the Netherlands and has given papers in Estonia, Germany, Poland, Ireland, Belgium, and England. Her performances as pianist have included solo, concerto, and chamber music.