Sydney Conservatorium of Music

The Deformational Titan: Mahler 1/IV and History within the New Formenlehre

Originating from James Hepokoski and Warren Darcy’s Elements of Sonata Theory, the concept of ‘dialogic form’ has emerged as a promising solution to the formal developments observed throughout the Romantic era and beyond. Dialogic form’s unique account of historical influence is closely linked to a deformational understanding of sonata form, both in terms of how sonatas were constructed and how we—as listeners and analysts—engage with them. However, despite Sonata Theory’s prevalence in the New Formenlehre, the theory’s dialogic approach constitutes only one perspective towards sonata form, one that is still being explored and debated.
Through the final movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, this paper explores conceptions of history within the New Formenlehre. While analysts such as Julian Horton, James Buhler, and Seth Monahan explain this movement’s sonata form through Theodor Adorno’s category of ‘breakthrough’, their different treatments of breakthrough generate divergent interpretations of its form. By linking each analyst’s particular approach to their broader formal conceptions, I explore how deformation intersects with a wide range of perspectives regarding the relationship between history and musical form. While the deformational understanding of breakthrough retains many similarities to its Adornian origins, the subtleties of dialogic form enable an alternative interpretation that substantially departs from its original meaning. This departure ultimately reflects radically different conceptions of sonata form and its relationship to history. Beyond addressing questions that confront sonata form in general, this discussion also explores broader aspects of the New Formenlehre, especially surrounding history and philosophy.


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Rafael (Ardi) Echevarria is an aspiring musicologist whose research investigates the relationship between music and philosophy. Ardi is particularly interested in the long nineteenth century and its accompanying music theory, especially surrounding harmony and form. He achieved First Class Honours in Musicology at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and is currently completing a Master’s degree while tutoring as part of the Conservatorium’s musicology division. Ardi has presented his research at the Musicological Society of Australia’s national conference, where he won 2nd Prize in the 2019 Student Paper Awards. He currently serves as a committee member for the society’s Sydney chapter and is part of the organising committee for its 2021 national conference.

Rafael (Ardi) Echevarria