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Reviewed by:
  • A Theory of Musical Narrative
  • Kofi Agawu
A Theory of Musical Narrative. By Byron Almén. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. [x, 248 p. ISBN 9780253352385. $39.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

The study of narrative (narratology) was once prominent in American musicology. From the 1980s into the early 1990s, essays by, among others, Anthony Newcomb, Carolyn Abbate, Leo Treitler, and Lawrence Kramer probed music’s capacity to tell stories as well as the structures that storytelling imposed on the discourse of musicology. Suggestive but inconclusive, these studies showed that in texted as well as nontexted music, a narrative perspective could shed light on musical meaning (see Fred Maus’ cogent summary in “Narratology, narrativity,” Grove Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com [accessed 19 August 2009]). Narratological research took something of a back seat later in the 1990s, as musicologists turned to social and interpretive concerns inspired by cultural studies and domesticated within the so-called new musicology. In the meantime, musical semiotics (the study of music’s signifying capacity), drawing on precedents in literary and anthropological formalism (notably the theories of Vladimir Propp and Claude Lévi-Strauss), sought ways of modeling narrative. Already in 1992 it was possible for Raymond Monelle to devote an entire chapter to “Semantics and Narrative Grammar” in his magisterial survey of the field of musical semiotics, Linguistics and Semiotics in Music (Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1992), and to reveal a vigorous and developing enterprise. Subsequently, music theorists (including analytically inclined musicologists), inspired by the emerging post-formalist climate of the 1990s, took up the challenge of specifying the dimensional behaviors that determined music’s narrative capability. Articles by Patrick McCreless, Maus, Vera Micznik, and Jean-Jacques Nattiez together with monographs by Eero Tarasti, Robert Hatten, David Lidov, Márta Grabócz, and Michael Klein brought a more concrete and empirical dimension to the study of narrative.

Byron Almén’s thoughtful new book takes advantage of some of these earlier efforts but goes beyond them not in the level of musical sophistication it displays but in the sharpness of the frames he puts forward to explain narrative. By his definition, a narrative must embody an initial conflict, transgression, or opposition among elements; this produces a disequilibrium that becomes a source of dynamism for the unfolding process. Constituent elements are arranged in a hierarchy whose profile fluctuates in the course of enactment. Narrative is thus “essentially an act of trans valuation” (p. 51). Almén’s aims are both theoretical and metatheoretical. He advances his own theory of narrative (principally in chapters 3 and 4) while subjecting previous theories to explication and critique. His principal intellectual debts are not to historical figures like Schumann, Berlioz, Liszt, Czerny, A. B. Marx, and Riemann (although Jérome-Joseph Momigny makes a brief appearance in the second chapter on the strength of an analysis of the fugue from Handel’s Keyboard Suite no. 6 in F♯Minor, which is “concerned with the temporal unfolding of semantic content in instrumental music” [p. 16]), but to recent studies of myth and narrative (by Northrop Frye and James Jakób Liszka), and to analytical studies of musical narrative (by Hatten, Tarasti and Micznik). Almén insists on a definition of “narrative proper” (p. 12) that is nominally valid for [End Page 275] all manifestations of narrative—literary, mythical, dramatic—as a necessary preliminary to a more specifically musical adaptation. The method, in other words, is not to search for traces of something called “narrative” in an ad hoc manner; nor does it involve building a case inductively or informally from the ground up. The aim, rather, is to assess the extent to which music satisfies the conditions enshrined in a rigorous definition of general narrative. This is a choice that Almén makes, and it is one that shapes his argument decisively; it ensures, on the one hand, that an interdisciplinary sheen is always apparent (note the plethora of technical terms scattered throughout the book), and, on the other hand, that readers who approach this volume by simply looking for fresh insights into familiar compositions will not be handed such insights on a silver platter.

A Theory of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-150X
Print ISSN
0027-4380
Pages
pp. 275-277
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-05
Open Access
No
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