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Nivans, David

Brahms and the Binary Sonata: A Structuralist Interpretation

Ph.D. University of California, Los Angeles, 1992
(dnivans@aol.com)

There is within the Brahms repertory a special class of sonata composition, whose thematic organization appears to suggest more than one formal interpretation. For the practitioners of thematic analysis, a combination of theme-complexes generates and determines the form of the composition; with respect to this particular group of works, thematicists maintain that the normal succession of principal and secondary themes followed by their immediate repetition invariably produces a two-part sonata with exposition and recapitulation but without an intermediary autonomous development section.

Starting from the premise that (for Brahms) harmonic structure rather than thematic organization determines form, this dissertation offers an alternative view in the tradition of Heinrich Schenker and Felix Salzer of those compositions of Brahms often classified as binary, some of which by dint of their respective structural frameworks have central development sections, and form consequently "ternary sonatas." The works included in this study are opp. 25/I, 26/IV, 34/IV, 68/IV, 81, 90/IV, 98/II and III, 114/IV, 8/IV (both versions), 51 no. 1/IV, 87/I, 101/I, and 108/IV; the last five opuses are ternary sonatas.

The first part of this investigation is an introduction to the topic: Chapter 1 challenges the positions of contemporary scholars who have followed the lead of Arnold Schoenberg in putting forward thematicist interpretations of Brahms's music; Chapter 2 considers the conceptual background against which my own positions are presented, namely, the structural (i.e., "synchronic") linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, the principles underlying the developmental psychology of Jean Piaget, Claude Lévi-Strauss's arguments for universal structures of the mind, Giambattista Vico's recognition of "primitive" man's "poetic wisdom," and Christopher Lewis's "analytic metaphor." In Chapter 3, I compare the structuralism of Schenker to that of Salzer, find that "binary distinction" rather than "binary opposition" informs the respective philosophies of both theorists, and propose that the latter's broader (i.e., transhistorical) conception of tonality effectively undermines the status of the former's "Chord of Nature" as a structural center. Chapter 4 concludes Part I with a statement of the problem for which this dissertation attempts to provide a possible solution. Chapters 5-7 (Part II, "The Binary Sonatas") delineate the most important and characteristic features of Brahms's binary sonatas, while Chapters 8-12 (Part III, "The Ternary Sonatas") are concerned with those works within this special class that have ternary designs.