University of Leuven

Hexatonic Tension and Breakthrough Function
in Fin-de-Siècle Viennese Symphonic First-Movement Form

The analysis of fin-de-siècle sonata forms often faces the problem that the tonic is frequently undermined by chromatic harmony. Although recent studies have mobilised James Hepokoski’s sonata deformation theory (1993 and Hepokoski and Darcy 2006) and identified aspects of fin-de-siècle formal practices (Darcy 1997, Marvin 2009 and Monahan 2015), such an approach emphasises departures from diatonic formal orthodoxy rather than the generative responsibility of post-Wagnerian tonal content as essential to fin-de-siècle sonata forms. This notion of deformation excludes the possibility of chromatic tonality as part of the formal design and consequently fails to illuminate the formal syntax engendered by such tonal properties.

This paper adapts William Caplin’s form-functional theory (1998) and recalibrates its tonal-harmonic foundation in neo-Riemannian terms (Cohn 1999 and 2012), arguing that a double-syntactic conception of tonality is fundamental to fin-de-siècle sonata forms. Drawing on a preliminary study of 10 Viennese symphonic first movements, I address two increasingly popular phenomena after 1900: structural permeation of hexatonic tonal contrast; and formal function of the breakthrough as a locus of syntactic reappraisal. The first issue is theorised through the model of hexatonic tension, which conceives the opposition between two hexatonically-related tonal ‘orbits’ (Horton 2018) as inherent to the fin-de-siècle formal process. While this global hexatonic syntax is confronted with the diatonic sonata design, the breakthrough functions to spotlight the incompatibility between hexatonic and diatonic syntaxes and posit a reconsideration of the form’s tonal-syntactic orientation. Together they attest to an alternative teleological model for fin-de-siècle sonata forms, the syntactic habits of which can only be explicated with a revamped tonal-harmonic underpinning.


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Kelvin H. F. Lee holds a PhD from Durham University and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Leuven. His research focuses on the analysis and history of symphonic music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with special interests in the analysis of musical form, the theory of tonality, global musical modernism and the intersection between music theory, history and philosophy. Kelvin’s work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Music Analysis, Musurgia and Notes, and he is a contributor to Nikolai Medtner: Music, Aesthetics, and Contexts (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag). His article ‘Rethinking the Symphonic Poem: Dialectical Form, Sequential Dissonances and the Chord of Fate in Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande‘ won the Musurgia 25th Anniversary Prize from Société Française d’Analyse Musicale. He was also awarded the 2018 Theory and Analysis Graduate Student Prize from the Society for Music Analysis. Kelvin is currently completing a monograph, provisionally titled The Sonata Moment: Dialectical Form and Symphonic Modernism in Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, which interrogates the interrelationship between dialectical thought, chromatic tonality and sonata form.

Kelvin H. F. Lee