School of Arts, English and Languages
Queen’s University Belfast

The Devil in the Details: Form, Allusion and Transmutation

As recent attempts to theorise the practices of post-classical composers enjoy encouraging momentum, a comprehensive study of Liszt’s large-scale forms is long overdue. Due to an apparent resistance of standardised sonata-form procedure, these works are often explained solely in terms of their programmatic content, thereby subordinating their relationship with formal models. Liszt’s narrative allusions do, however, provide a particular problem for analysts, given that there is an evident mutual inclusivity between form and programme. While Liszt’s works might reasonably be analysed abstractly, this paper argues that a greater understanding of his formal practice can be gained with contextual reference to these ‘extra-musical’ inspirations.
When viewed through the lens of Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory (2006), the third movement of Liszt’s Eine Faust Symphonie can be read as a narratively charged deformation process which reflects the character of its namesake, Mephistopheles—if ‘generic markers’ such as thematic syntax, cadential closure, rotational and tonal plots hold currency for a nineteenth-century symphony, then this movement appears to distort, challenge, and break normative practice at every junction. Keeping Goethe’s Faust close to the reading, the analysis shows how contemporary theoretical concepts such as breakthrough (Hepokoski, 1993, 2006), becoming (Schmalfeldt, 2011), formal-functional regression (Martin and Vande Moortele, 2014) and proliferation (Horton, 2017), thus act as hermeneutic windows onto the unfolding drama of the movement; isolated, these formal features appear confusing, ill-conceived, and in poor practice, but with the overarching narrative in mind, they reflect a Mephistophelean gloss on the sonata principle.


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Bryan A. Whitelaw is a PhD Researcher in Musicology at Queen’s University Belfast, with interests in nineteenth-century repertoire, theory, and source studies, particularly in the music of Franz Liszt. Bryan is also student representative and council member of the Society for Musicology in Ireland. His PhD research focuses on the interplay between Liszt’s literary and cultural influences, and their impact in his compositional output during the Weimar period, ca. 1848–1861. The study is based on the development of a narratographic musical theory which attempts to bridge the divide between historically and culturally contextual scholarship, on the one hand, and the rigorous application of formal theory on the other. The work thus adopts aspects of narratology, hermeneutics, and semiotics, alongside theoretical interests such as Hepokoski and Darcy’s Sonata Theory (2006), William Caplin's theory of formal functions (1998), and neo-Riemannian theory.

Bryan A. Whitelaw