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Analysis of the Adagio of Bruckner’s String Quintet (1871). What Issues of Generic Analysis Are Suggested by This Movement?

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Analysis of the Adagio of Bruckner’s String Quintet (1871). What issues of generic analysis are suggested by this movement?

On first encountering the slow movement Bruckner’s String Quintet one may, on account of the extraordinary large scale formal and tonal progressions that Bruckner employs, assume a conscious influence of Beethoven’s late works on the composer. However, in ‘The Essence of Bruckner’, Simpson asserts that Bruckner seems to have been ignorant of Beethoven’s late quartets until his mid-fifties, and thus the String Quintet, composed in 1879, sits outside of a direct influence from Beethoven as a remarkable phenomenon.[1] When first approaching the Adagio from an analytical angle, the most immediately striking facet is the idiosyncratic structure; sonata form (as far as Hepokoski and Darcy’s definition is concerned) and other traditional structural paradigms fail to apply, mainly on account of the main motivic material not having a decisive restatement in a key other than the tonic (though the idea of ‘rotation’ is nonetheless useful). An argument could be made for the movement having a binary form, with the dividing point at bar 67, but this position is problematized by a significant weight towards the second section, both in terms of proportion and in terms of the development of material. The treatment of motivic material becomes of great importance, as the movement can be seen to employ a certain degree of monothematicism within a complex tonal structure. Since traditional paradigms of formal analysis fail to explain the structural processes behind the String Quintet, it is more useful to look elsewhere to Kurth’s idea of ‘undulatory phases’ in Bruckner. This enables us to look at the fluidity of component motives as a means towards understanding the ‘endless melody’ that prevails in Bruckner’s formal processes, which Kurth argues should be grasped synthetically instead of analytically through the unfolding (entfaltung) of the theme.[2] In other words, we must look at Bruckner’s music as a series of sonic intensifications, with constituent waves contributing towards a holistic impression. To understand the function of the contribution of these waves towards an overall trajectory, it is also important to apply Schenkerian ideas. In this essay I aim to approach an analysis of this movement through combining the analytical ideas of Kurth and Schenker, using this as a key to understanding the relationship between structure and motive, and even the placement of the movement within the quintet as a whole.

Whereas one may usually begin analysis with an outline of the tonal structure, it is perhaps more appropriate in this case to begin with an understanding of motive. Given that the piece can be seen as somewhat monothematic in the secondary thematic material (from b.19) being derived from an inversion of the primary material, melody acts as a unifying factor throughout the piece, and the rise and fall trajectories first identified in this principal material can later help an understanding of larger scale structural trajectories. The motive is treated imitatively from the start, with the second viola in bar 2 imitating the melody of bar 1 at the semitone. This imitation is later developed to create processes of intensification. The primary theme at bar 1-12 is characterised by an initial rise, both in the melodic voices and the cello part, then sinking towards what Simpson identifies as a culmination on the verge of the subdominant (first felt through the Fb at bar 9). This rising and falling characteristic also becomes important in transitional sections; after a repeat of the initial melodic rise to a top Gb at bar 18, the transition material at bars 19-35 then descends chromatically above a Cb pedal. The semitone becomes essential to formation of the movement, as can be clearly identified through the prominence of C natural and Db in the final bars of the coda, and here it serves to articulate the descent through the Fbs and Ebs in the upper notes of the first violin in bars 26-32. If we view the semitone as an internal function which serves to create tonal and harmonic implications within undulatory phases, we can thus the constituent melodic makeup of the movement as such a sound wave. This is supported by the use of dynamics, which crescendo to forte at bar 17 before retracting to pianissimo by bar 31.

The semitonal descent identified in the transitionary material is also inherently present in the secondary motive at bar 37 through the Bb major to Bb minor movement. The juxtaposition of Db and D natural here is essential to the tonal weight of the movement towards Eb minor – a presence felt as early as the D natural in the principle material at bar 24, and expanded upon by the arrival on the dominant of Eb minor at bar 136-8 before the return of the main theme in the tonic at bar 138. The prominence of the semitone and weight towards the relative minor gives the piece a downward trajectory, insofar as so identify an instance of what Kurth classifies as Bruckner’s fondness for ‘the power of large tierings, whose individual component motions do in fact lead downward from the very outset, but which build up linked series of intensifications’.[3] This semitonal descent is also used to construct the movement’s reliance upon the Neapolitan. This is most striking at bars 113-4, where the underlying Gb-F movement sees the exact transposition of the same material down a semitone and reflects the Neapolitan relationship of the Gb major movement to the F major. This precedes a sudden shift into D major/minor at bar 115, with the F sharp to natural movement inherent in the secondary thematic material an enharmonic repetition of the movement of the preceding bars, and here D sits as the Neapolitan of the dominant key of the movement. This shows the importance of the semitone in contributing to the downward trajectory through the Neapolitan.

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